AS THE MEDIA horde surrounded the likes of DeSean Jackson, Reggie Brown, Brian Dawkins and, of course, Donovan McNabb in the Eagles' locker room following practice the other day, starting linebackers Omar Gaither, Stewart Bradley and Chris Gocong emerged from the shower area and quietly slipped passed the gathered, made their way down to the end of the room and went about their business in front of their lockers.

Their anonymity spoke volumes. Wasn't this group supposed to be the big question mark in Jim Johnson's defense? After all, Gaither (he of 21 NFL starts) is moving from middle linebacker to weakside linebacker, Bradley (one start) takes over as the starting middle linebacker in his second season and Gocong (12 starts) begins his second season at the SAM position, after playing defensive end in college.

Of course, no questions have been fully answered yet. And the three figure to see limited action in tonight's preseason finale against the visiting Jets. Still, you can't help but feel a comfort level has been reached in the middle of what appears to be an improved defensive unit.

"It's fine with us," Gaither said of the lack of attention paid to his group. "Whether we get a bunch of attention or we don't, I don't think we're going to feel pressure. We know what we can do. I think we're good. I think we feel comfortable with each other. There's great communication going on so far. I'm anxious and ready for us to get into a real game and see us put together a whole game."

That's something the three really have not done yet, though they're certainly very familiar with each other.

"We're a pretty cohesive group off the field and I think it carries on to the field," Bradley said. "Not only are we similar in age, but I think in interests and work ethic. So I think it's a good thing that we're all the same age. We're all young and in a similar situation."

Similar in a lot of areas.

All are big (Gaither goes 6-2, 245, Bradley, 6-4, 255, and Gocong, 6-2, 263), young (Bradley and Gocong will turn 25 in November, Gaither not until March) and possess tremendous speed. The only thing that might be more impressive is their mental aptitude.

Bradley graduated from Nebraska with an accounting and finance degree and is currently building his own stock portfolio and looking for an internship in the stock market next offseason. He was a two-time Big 12 Academic Honor Roll selection.

Gaither earned his degree from Tennessee in sports management with a minor in business and was named Southeastern Conference all-academic three times. He participated in a pair of 3-day sessions at Harvard Business School as part of the NFL Business Management and Entrepreneurial Program. He is looking to get into real estate when football is over.

And Gocong graduated from Cal Poly, one of the nation's premier engineering schools, with a degree in general engineering. He envisions entering the biomedical field when his playing days are over.

Picking up Jim Johnson's head-scratching defensive system probably wasn't all that tough for the three, but playing it well together might take some time.

"Our progress is not surprising," Gaither said of the group. "Chris started [12] games last season, so he's pretty much a vet by league standards. And Stew's a smart player who did start last year. It's not like they've never seen a start in the NFL. Although Stew is picking up full duty this year from Day 1, he has done well with the checks and things of that nature. He and Chris are very smart players, so I'm not surprised at all how they've progressed."

Again, nothing has been proven yet. Their time will start when the St. Louis Rams come to town a week from Sunday to kick off the season.

"Assignmentwise, and our communication, I think we feel pretty comfortable," Bradley said. "We're making sure we know what we're doing and being in the right spots to be able to make big plays. You always want to stay fundamentally sound, but I think we're feeling pretty comfortable out there.

"For me, last year I was learning the WIL and the MIK. This year, concentrating just on the MIK, I feel like I'm over the hurdle of grasping what it is I'm supposed to be doing and when a play comes when I'm just reacting. So far, most of my reactions are correct, so that's a good sign."

A good sign for the key group in Johnson's defense. "We play hard, come downhill, we're big and we can run," Gaither said, when asked to give a scout's take on the core. "We're inexperienced. Obviously, they like to use that a lot, but we're smart. I'm not saying they would game plan for us specifically, but we're definitely not something they can [overlook]. We're definitely not a weakness. I don't think there is one in this defense. And it's definitely not us." *