Omar Gaither wasn't surprised. He knew as soon as the Eagles traded for Buffalo Bills linebacker Takeo Spikes that his starting job on the weak side was in serious jeopardy.
The 23-year-old Gaither, the Eagles' fifth-round draft pick out of Tennessee a year ago, would love to be a starter. But he sees the big picture. Backing up veteran Pro Bowler Jeremiah Trotter in the middle, not to mention playing in nickel packages and on special teams, is not the worst thing.
Gaither will play on Sundays, even if he isn't introduced as a starter before kickoff.
"To be honest, I was happy the Eagles traded for Takeo," Gaither said yesterday after the final practice of the Eagles' camp for rookies and young players. "He's a great player. He's a great guy. . . . He's just another guy to look up to, just another guy to ask questions, just another guy who I feel can make me better.
"The thing about Trotter, he's not concerned about me taking his position. I feel like he can help me get better. In the long run, it's going to work out best for me."
Last season, Gaither became a starter on Dec. 4 against his hometown team, the Carolina Panthers. The previous week, the Eagles had struggled against the run, giving up 237 yards rushing in a loss to the Indianapolis Colts. Something had to change. Gaither got the start at weakside linebacker instead of Matt McCoy; he made six tackles in the game and got "about a thousand" voice-mail messages afterward.
Gaither started the remaining four games of the regular season, and playoff games against the New York Giants and New Orleans Saints.
When he sacked Giants quarterback Eli Manning late in the regular season, Gaither became the first Eagles rookie to record a sack since Ray Farmer in 1996. He also picked off Washington quarterback Jason Campbell to set up a score early in a crucial division game.
Gaither finished the regular season with 58 tackles and had 12 more in the playoffs. The Eagles saw him as a potential starter for the 2007 season - then they traded Darwin Walker to Buffalo for Spikes in late March, and Gaither knew.
"It's not the first time it's ever happened to me," he said. "It actually happened a little bit at the University of Tennessee. It just makes me more hungry. I've had a taste of starting, and I don't think anybody comes to this level and wants to be a backup. I've had a taste, and I'm hungry for more."
The native of Charlotte, N.C., has spent the entire off-season at the NovaCare Complex, working out five times a week. He is serious about regaining his starting spot, be it this season or next.
"Coaches, they feel like they put the best players out there, and it's my job to make it tough on them," Gaither said. "I'm looking forward to it."