APPEARANCES ASIDE, the Eagles did not decide that Stewart Bradley would be their starting middle linebacker based entirely on his performance in the final three games of last season.

Although the only action he saw for most of his rookie season was on special teams, the 2007 third-round draft pick out of

Nebraska showed continuous improvement in grasping the Eagles' defensive scheme during practice.

Stepping in for an injured Takeo Spikes and playing well against Dallas, New Orleans and Buffalo just solidified the belief that Bradley could translate what he showed in practice into actual games.

"I think last year he was frustrated," Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson said of Bradley. "But he got his chance and came through in those last three games.

"He went into those games and made a lot of plays. All of a sudden, the confidence was there. I see confidence. He can make a mistake, but he knows when he does it. It doesn't bother him because he knows he won't make it again."

Frankly, Bradley made about as good of an impression as a rookie could in his first career start against the Saints on Dec. 23.

He became the first Eagle to register a sack and an interception in his first start. He finished with six tackles.

For the season, Bradley had 20 tackles (12 solo, eight assists). He was second on the team with 17 tackles on special teams.

So based on Bradley's projected upside, the Birds took a calculated risk and released Spikes.

It really wasn't that much of a different move than the one the Eagles made before last season when they released veteran middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter on the hunch that second-year players Omar Gaither and Chris Gocong were ready to step up.

Frankly, if the move to Bradley works as well as the one to Gaither and Gocong did, the Eagles could have something that has never been a part of Andy Reid's 10-year reign - a solid corps of young linebackers.

"They can all run pretty good, they are smart and they play well off each other," Johnson said of Bradley, Gaither and Gocong. "It's kind of fun to watch."

Obviously, Bradley has the most to prove. Gaither (21 career starts) and Gocong (12) have cut their teeth under the pressure of NFL regular-season action.

But if Bradley, who was a 3-year starter at Nebraska, is insecure, it certainly isn't showing.

"I think it's just more comfort level with the defense," Bradley said. "Last year, I was still trying to grasp all the things that were going on.

"Basically, it was just a different approach to the way things were done in college. It takes a while to get used to it, but once you do, you feel pretty comfortable."

Although Bradley played strongside linebacker in college, Johnson decided to move the 6-3, 254-pounder to the inside.

"I didn't know if he could play the SAM," Johnson said, "but once we put him inside, he took off because he's a big guy who can run. Plus, he's physical, and he's smart enough to handle all the signal calls.

"You never know for sure, but I think this is a good position for him. There are a lot of positives about him."

Training camp is more than a month away, but as of now, a starting position is Bradley's to keep.

"I think the most pressure is the internal pressure we all put on ourselves," Bradley said. "I think we are all driven to where we want to be the best. I think that's where the pressure comes from."

Sports are ironically funny.

Had Bradley been a first-round pick and started just one game as a rookie, he probably would go into training camp with even more questions about him.

But because his rookie season was one of constant growth that resulted in those final three games, Bradley is being viewed as a potential steal for the Eagles.

Of course, that will only be true if he brings last year's finish to the start of this season and carries it through the entire year.

"You really can't worry about what people are thinking," Bradley said when asked about being put at the top of the depth chart with so little experience. "All you can do is just go to work, work hard and try to make plays with your teammates on the field.

"I think we as linebackers, we are coming together. There have been some bumps and we've got some things to still learn, but I think mentally we're solid and

we're definitely an athletic corps.

"We have some intelligent guys who are willing to work hard so I think we'll be successful." *

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