THE ONE THING just about every observer agreed on going into last month's NFL draft was that the Eagles would grab help early for their secondary.

That was the one place where they had suffered significant losses in free agency (nickel corner Rod Hood, off to Arizona; former Pro Bowl strong safety Mike Lewis, to San Francisco), without bringing in anyone new. In fact, the most likely first-round scenario had the Birds drafting a safety who could be a successor in a few years to Brian Dawkins, who turns 34 in October.

But as everyone in Eagles Nation vividly recalls, the first-round run on safeties and corners left the Birds without anyone they coveted at 26th overall. They traded down and shocked us all by selecting quarterback Kevin Kolb with their initial pick. Then they took a defensive end (Victor Abiamiri), a linebacker (Stewart Bradley) and a running back (Tony Hunt). The first day of the draft ended with no Dawkins successor on the horizon, which would have been the headline, except for that little detail about the unexpected arrival of the presumed quarterback of the future.

With their first pick of the second day, though, in the fifth round, 159th overall, the Eagles took cornerback-safety C.J. Gaddis, from Clemson, Dawkins' alma mater, no less, and they announced right away that they saw him chiefly as a safety.

The "successor to Dawkins" tag is a heavy one to lay on a fifth-round draft pick. Dawkins has been one of the two or three best safeties in football for several years. Andy Reid has touted him for the Hall of Fame. It's unlikely the Eagles actually see Gaddis, 5-11, 206, as anything more than a guy who might make the roster at a position of need, at least right now - the likely scenario seems to be that they think they're OK this year with Sean Considine at strong safety and Quentin Mikell backing up both Considine and Dawkins, with possible help from Gaddis, and after this season, they can reassess. But Gaddis certainly has an opportunity to prove to the Eagles that they don't need to spend another, higher draft choice on the position in 2008.

"In due time, I definitely feel I'll blossom into that type of player," Gaddis said yesterday after the first workout of a minicamp for rookies and select (read: low on the totem pole) vets. "I do know I have a lot of work to do."

It's Gaddis' athleticism that enticed the Eagles - he came to Clemson as a quarterback, and was drafted by the Seattle Mariners as a 20th-round outfielder in 2003. In college he played linebacker, safety and corner, working mainly at corner last season, when he attracted attention by holding Georgia Tech's Calvin Johnson without a catch for the first time in 30 games. Johnson was drafted second overall by Detroit, a mere 157 slots ahead of Gaddis, who left Clemson with a year of eligibility remaining.

"I played beyond myself," said Gaddis, who said he had help at times but also spent a fair amount of time one-on-one with the guy many scouts see as a rare, dominant talent. "Being physical with him" was the key, Gaddis said. "Maybe I would just throw some of his routes off, the timing."

Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson noted that in his blitz package, the free safety sometimes has to cover a wideout. Gaddis would seem to have the tools to handle that, something you can't say of every young safety. "He's been a corner, he's been a safety, right now he's really got to settle down and learn that safety position," Johnson said. "We're spending most of our time working with him at safety. Once he gets some of that stuff down, we're just going to throw him out at corner and see what kind of cover ability he's got, because if he can do that [as well], he's got a better chance of making this team."

Johnson's defense isn't easy to learn, which is why there are such things as rookie minicamps.

"He's swimming right now," Johnson said, meaning Gaddis is struggling. "I understand that - I tell the coaches that's going to happen for a while [with most rookies]. He's just got to get some confidence. That's the nice thing about these camps, they get a lot of individual work."

Dawkins, who keeps tabs on his alma mater although the entire coaching staff has changed since he left in 1996, sees Gaddis as "a young, raw talent."

"I know that because of injuries [to other players] he sometimes played safety, sometimes corner," Dawkins said. "Reading into that, I would say that would be a guy with a lot of talent."

Dawkins said the learning curve probably will be tougher for Gaddis at safety than at corner.

"At safety, you don't have to react as fast out on the highway, but you have to anticipate more," Dawkins said. "If you take the wrong angle, it's a completion. There's a lot more ground you have to cover."

Gaddis doesn't really know Dawkins, but he said that playing at Clemson, you certainly know about him. "When you say, 'the most successful Clemson football player,' nobody else comes to mind," Gaddis said. Dawkins, excused from the first full-team minicamp to deal with personal matters, hasn't been around the rookies yet, but Gaddis certainly has seen Dawkins' two-stall suite in the front corner of the NovaCare locker room - one stall with Dawkins' gear, the other with all of Dawkins' X-Men Wolverine gear, and a nameplate for "Weapon X."

"If you watch defensive backs, you know who Brian Dawkins is," Gaddis said. "He's Weapon X."

Gaddis knows he lasted until the fifth round because NFL people viewed him more as an athlete than a finished product. Some observers thought his decision to leave college early was unfortunate. Gaddis wants to show he can gain polish quickly.

"People have that 'athlete' label on me. It's a good label to have," Gaddis said. "But I think I'm a good football player . . . when we talk about Brian Dawkins, he's a great football player. That's how I want to end up."

Two down

The Eagles agreed to terms on 4-year deals with two of their eight draft picks yesterday, making third-round linebacker Stewart Bradley, from Nebraska (drafted 87th overall) and former Penn State running back Tony Hunt (90th overall) the first Birds draftees in the fold, and among the first handful in the league to get contracts done.

The Eagles agreed to terms on 4-year deals with two of their eight draft picks yesterday, making third-round linebacker Stewart Bradley, from Nebraska (drafted 87th overall) and former Penn State running back Tony Hunt (90th overall) the first Birds draftees in the fold, and among the first handful in the league to get contracts done.

Neither Hunt's agent, Alvin Keels, nor Bradley's agent, Michael Hoffman, wanted to reveal financial terms, but both said they were pleased.

"They were pretty aggressive in wanting to get it done," Keels said.

Hoffman said he wanted to commend Eagles vice president of football administration Howie Roseman for "being motivated to get deals done early." Hoffman said the Eagles were "looking to do the fair thing," and that Bradley wanted the contract talks over with so he could concentrate on football.

Jeff Nalley, agent for the Eagles' top pick, quarterback Kevin Kolb, said recently he didn't anticipate fruitful contract talks for a while yet. Speaking of Kolb, the rookie said yesterday he was glad to see all the hubbub over his selection settle down as he concentrates on learing the Eagles' offense.

"This [rookie minicamp] is going to help settle things down in my mind," Kolb said. "Catch my body up with it, and hopefully start executing a little better . . . My timing's way off right now, I don't trust things, it's a different system. We didn't have a lot of timing routes at Houston; I'm having a hard time with that. But keep staying afterward, keep thinking about it, keep it fresh in my mind, and it'll come around. I just have to create some new habits." *