Not long ago, Darren Howard was the prized free-agent addition at the Eagles' spring camp.

He was the guy who was going to make a difference in the Eagles' pass rush, the defensive end who would be paired with Jevon Kearse to form a formidable assault on opposing quarterbacks.

But entering his fourth season with the Eagles, Howard finds it is easy to to go unnoticed, even though he has never been more valuable to the defensive line.

Howard underwent the dreaded sports hernia operation shortly after the Eagles' NFC championship loss to the Arizona Cardinals, but few people have asked for a medical update on the hybrid defensive lineman. For the record, he is doing well. He did not participate in team drills during the Eagles' post-draft camp last month, and he has been eased into things at these workouts, which continued yesterday at the NovaCare Complex.

"I haven't really had a lot of problems with it," he said. "My situation is a little different than some other guys here. The sports hernia is a tear, but mine was small. I also had a bone spur growth on top of my pelvis. It was more grinding that down than it was fixing the muscle. It wasn't like Kevin Curtis or some other guys. It was a little bit different injury, and that's why my recovery has been a lot better."

You'd think there would be more interest in how the team leader in sacks was recovering, but Howard understands that few people even realize he led the Eagles in that department last season with 10.

"I'd say about 19.6 percent would get it right," Howard said. "That's fine. A lot of people got sacks on the defensive line and I was able to contribute a lot more than I thought I'd be able to. It's one of those things where nobody had an outrageous number of sacks, but nobody got an outrageous number of snap numbers. We play eight different people on that defensive line, and it makes you hungry when you get on the field."

Howard, 32, led the Eagles despite playing fewer than half of the team's defensive downs.

"It felt good," Howard said. "I had a couple of injuries those first two years here, and last year for me was pretty much injury free. . . . It just felt good to help the team in whatever way I could."

The way he helped most was as a pass-rushing defensive tackle in the Eagles' nickel defense. He estimated that six of his 10 sacks came at defensive tackle rather than defensive end, the position the Eagles anticipated him playing when they signed him to a six-year, $32 million contract in 2006.

"You never know how things are going to work," he said. "It's all about how you approach things. In this game, things happen and it doesn't always work out the way you plan on them working, but you have to adjust and roll with the punches. They're not going to adjust to you, especially in an organization that has had this kind of success. You have to find your niche. It's not about one person. I knew I was going to play inside and I wanted to make the most of it."

Howard, realizing that he is in the twilight of his career, took the NFC championship loss hard. He had never been that deep in the playoffs, and the fact that he could see the Super Bowl festivities going on from the window of his condo in downtown Tampa made it even more difficult.

"It stayed with me a long time," Howard said. "Two weeks later, the Super Bowl was in my hometown and you couldn't avoid it. I couldn't get out of my house, and I could see everything going on from my window."

Now, Howard is hoping the Eagles can take that next step and reach the Super Bowl. He thinks the defensive line is good enough to get the team there, but the veteran warns of complacency.

"We know we're good, and we have talent," he said. "But we can't get lulled into thinking we can just stay where we were. We have to try to get better."