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Big test for class of '06

Time for Birds' second-year players to contribute

For many of the eight members of the Eagles' 2006 draft class, the time is now.

First-round pick Brodrick Bunkley, a major disappointment as a rookie, will report to training camp as the team's starting right defensive tackle.

Third-rounder Chris Gocong, who spent his entire rookie season on injured reserve, will check in to Lehigh as the starter at strongside linebacker.

There are high hopes for fourth-round wideout Jason Avant, who caught just seven passes last year. Fifth-rounder Jeremy Bloom, who, like Gocong, spent all of '06 on injured reserve, could be the team's season-opening return man.

The Eagles' other '06 fifth-round pick, Omar Gaither, who made five late-season starts at weakside linebacker, has been penciled in as the middle linebacker in their nickel package and could end up starting on either the weakside or in the middle depending on how things play out.

For another member of the class of '06, though, offensive tackle Winston Justice, the time still appears be at least another year away.

Selected in the second round of the '06 draft to be the eventual successor to William Thomas' left-tackle throne, Justice was inactive for every game as a rookie.

The organizational thinking when the Eagles drafted Justice was that Thomas, then 31, was recovering from both major back surgery and a blood clot in his leg, and probably had no more than one productive season left.

But a funny thing happened to Thomas on the way to the glue factory. The back held up, the clot disappeared and he turned in one of the better seasons of his career as the Eagles finished second in the league in total offense and gave up just 28 sacks, their fewest since 1981.

Thomas played so well last year that the Eagles didn't hesitate to bring him back for his 10th NFL season, even though he's scheduled to make a hefty $4.55 million, and even though they had Justice. Assuming Thomas remains healthy, Justice would appear to be looking at a second straight year of watching and learning.

"I'm just going to wait for my opportunity and try to make the most of it when it comes," Justice said. "If it's this year, great. If it's not, if that's God's plan for me, then that's the plan."

Thomas, who had arthroscopic knee surgery in February, didn't participate in the Eagles' just-completed 3-day minicamp, but is expected to be ready in plenty of time for the start of training camp in late July. Justice took all of the reps at left tackle with the No. 1 offense during the minicamp.

"I feel comfortable that he can step in and play and do a nice job if asked," coach Andy Reid said. "He's done a nice job with the mental part of it. And he's gotten himself a little bit stronger this offseason."

Adding strength was at the tippy-top of the "things to do" list Justice got from offensive line coach Juan Castillo following the Eagles' playoff loss to New Orleans.

"I added about 10 pounds of muscle," said Justice, who is listed at 6-6 and 320 pounds. "I've spent a lot of time in the weight room the last 3 months. I've gotten bigger, stronger and faster. I think you can tell that on the field."

He also has a much better grasp of the Eagles' offense than he had last year. Even though he came out of one of the nation's top college programs at USC, Justice had a difficult time getting his arms around Reid's version of nuclear physics, which is pretty much the case for any newcomer to the offense.

"I feel sorry for the guys coming in now," he said. "I was in that same situation a year ago. It was hard for me as a rookie to come in and even practice as hard as I needed to because everything was so different."

Pro Bowl right guard Shawn Andrews, who was the Eagles' first-round pick in '04, knows the feeling.

"It's almost like it's so easy that it's hard," Andrews said. "At least it was for me. I was trying to get that learning curve down. I wasn't an 'A' student. I have a pretty decent IQ. But it definitely was hard to pick up some of the things. Mostly the terminology. It was frustrating."

Justice didn't expect to step right in and start last season. But he also didn't expect to be a seasonlong bench ornament.

"It was hard," he admitted. "I've never been in a situation like that where I wasn't playing, where I was a backup. It was a very humbling experience. But it motivated me to work harder. I got a chance to learn from two Pro Bowlers [Thomas and right tackle Jon Runyan]. So maybe it was a blessing in disguise. You never know until you start playing."

Unless Thomas gets hurt, Justice probably will have to make do with playing on special teams this season. But the Eagles remain high on him.

"He's coming along just fine," offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. "Winston Justice is a player that will help us at some point, and quite likely, help us for quite a while." *