SHELDON BROWN'S absence from the first session of the Eagles' 2-week voluntary camp at the NovaCare Complex yesterday seemed to be a much bigger deal for the media covering this shorts-and-no-pads funfest than for the players participating in it.
The television minicams cruised up and down DB Row in the locker room looking for someone, anyone, who might be visibly distraught over their secondary mate's decision to stay home with the wife and kids. The best they could come up with were a couple of yawns.
"Everybody [in the media] is making a big deal of it because Sheldon is having some problems with his contract," said cornerback Joselio Hanson. "But nobody in here is really talking about it. He'll be ready to play this year.
"Everybody needs to worry about their job and what they're doing out there, or they're going to be in trouble when they get to Lehigh. I'm sitting in the same spot [whether Brown's here or not]. I'm second string right now, left corner. First nickel. Nothing's changed for me."
Actually, everything has changed for Hanson. For the first time in his NFL career, he has financial security. Got it in late February, when the Eagles re-signed their valuable nickel corner to a 5-year, $21 million deal that included $6 million in guarantees.
Hanson was days away from becoming an unrestricted free agent. At least two teams told his agent they were interested in him as a starter. But he elected to re-sign with the Eagles.
"We've kind of built a family atmosphere here," Hanson said. "I wanted to stay with the team that knows me, that knows what I can do. This has been a good fit for me here, and I didn't want to leave."
The Eagles didn't want him to leave, which is why they gave starter's money to a nickel corner. The tough, 5-9, 185-pound Hanson covers the slot as well as any corner in the league, and helped the Eagles finish third in the NFL in pass defense last season. They allowed just 182.1 passing yards per game, which was the second fewest of any Jim Johnson-coached Eagles defense (his '01 unit allowed 179.0 per game).
Hanson played well as both a starter (four games) and nickel corner in '07. But he found himself buried on the bench early last season, behind Brown, new arrival Asante Samuel and Lito Sheppard, playing on special teams and in dime (five defensive backs) packages.
But then Sheppard strained his hamstring in the third quarter of the Eagles' 40-26, Week 6 win over the 49ers, and Hanson moved back to nickel corner. The before-and-after numbers speak volumes about how much better the defense played with Hanson inside.
In their first six games, the Eagles allowed 6.88 yards per attempt. Opposing quarterbacks had a .571 completion percentage. In the next 12 games, with Hanson at nickel, before the defense crashed and burned in the NFC Championship Game against Arizona, the Eagles held opponents to just 5.66 yards per attempt and a .516 completion percentage.
"I feel really comfortable in the nickel position here," Hanson said. "It's a fun position to play for me. A lot of guys can't do it across the league. They don't want to play nickel back. But I like it.
"I'm quicker than most players who play inside. I think I'm smarter than a lot of players, too. When you play in the slot position, you've got to be that much smarter. You've got to know a lot of stuff. There's a lot of stuff you have to know at that position."
Samuel's arrival last year left Hanson as the odd man out until Sheppard got hurt. That won't happen again this year, even with the draft-day trade for Ellis Hobbs. While it remains to be seen who will be the Eagles' season-opening starting right corner - Brown or Hobbs - this much is clear: Hanson will be the third corner. Which is one more reason to believe that Brown will be traded at some point between now and September.
"When I was in there last year, we did some good things," Hanson said. "We started playing better and did some nice things. They know that I can play. I'm just going to continue to try to be solid.''
Johnson, who has taken a leave of absence while undergoing another round of chemotherapy in his cancer battle, loves the job Hanson does in the slot.
"It's the hardest thing to do, covering a slot receiver," Johnson said last December. "Because they got half of the field to work with. But he's done a good job. He got his chance and has taken advantage of it."
Three years ago, Hanson was languishing in NFL Europe after being cut by the 49ers. Wasn't even a starter in the now-defunct league. But the Eagles liked him enough to sign him.
"I guess it turned out to be a blessing in disguise that I didn't start over there," said Hanson, who is entering his fourth season with the Eagles. "It kept me fresh enough to come into camp with the Eagles and play well and make the team."
And now, he has a nice new contract and an important role on a team that hopes to contend for a Super Bowl title this season.
"You never forget where you came from," Hanson said. "Especially when you came into the league as a free-agent underdog. I haven't made it yet. I'm going to keep going to the end." *