IF THE EAGLES are going to make it back to the playoffs for the ninth time in 11 years, they must do a better job of replacing cornerback Sheldon Brown than they did of replacing free safety Brian Dawkins last year.

The Eagles tried three different players at Dawkins' spot - Quintin Demps, free-agent pickup Sean Jones and fifth-round rookie Macho Harris. None came close to being adequate.

Brown, who was traded to Cleveland yesterday along with linebacker Chris Gocong, wasn't as talented as Dawkins, who is an eight-time Pro Bowler and a likely future Hall-of-Famer. But he was a tough, overachieving SOB with the pain threshold of a bull

elephant who answered the bell every week. Didn't miss a game in 8 years.

At the moment, Ellis Hobbs, who was acquired from the Patriots last year in a draft-day trade, has been penciled in as Brown's replacement. But that pencil has an eraser. Hobbs couldn't beat out Brown last year and then missed the second half of the season with a career-threatening neck injury.

"We think he's going to have an opportunity to come in and compete," general manager Howie Roseman said of Hobbs. "We like Ellis Hobbs. Ellis Hobbs was a starter on a [Patriots] team that was 18-0. We think Ellis Hobbs is a good starting corner in this league. And we think we have other players on this team who can step into that spot and contribute.

"We're going to put all of our options together in terms of the combinations at safety and corner. I think it will sort itself out here before we get to the first minicamp."

The Eagles have two defensive backs - Harris and Marlin Jackson, who was signed last month - who can play both corner and safety. But Harris, a 2009 fifth-rounder, doesn't really have the speed to be an outside cover guy, and Jackson, who is coming off two ACL injuries, was brought in to play free safety. The other corners on the roster right now are nickel man Joselio Hanson, Dimitri Patterson and Geoffrey Pope.

There's a very good chance the Eagles will look to the draft for Brown's replacement. Cornerback already was a need because of Brown's age (he turned 31 last month) and Hobbs' injury and contract situation (he's a restricted free agent). Now, with Brown gone, it's a pressing need.

With the two picks they acquired from Cleveland, the Eagles currently have 10 selections in the April 22-24 draft, including six in the first four rounds. That number could swell even more if the Eagles trade quarterbacks Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick before or during the draft.

As many as five cornerbacks are expected to go in the first 40 picks, including the draft's top-rated corner, Joe Haden of Florida. But the Eagles would have to move up considerably from their current position in the first round (No. 24) to get Haden, who could be a top-10 pick. Right now, they don't have the ammunition to move that far up. They'd love to be able to coax the 49ers to part with one of their two first-round picks (Nos. 13, 17) for McNabb. But the Niners continue to say they are content moving forward with Alex Smith as their starting quarterback.

"Haden is smart, physical, instinctive and tough," said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock. "He doesn't have elite corner speed and some teams might get nervous about putting him out there against a 6-2 burner. But I like him because he's so physical and so instinctive. I think he goes in the top half of the first round. He'll be the first corner off the board."

Brown was one of the league's top run-support corners, which became even more important after the Eagles signed Asante Samuel, who is an outstanding ball hawk but can't tackle, to play the other corner spot. Reid said last week that Samuel is hitting the weights this offseason in an attempt to add more strength and become a better tackler.

"I think Asante knows he needs to have a better year than what he had, even though he was a Pro Bowler," the Eagles coach said. "As good a player as he is, he can be even better. And I think that's the way he's handling the offseason."

Most of the top corners in this draft are good tacklers, including Haden, Kyle Wilson of Boise State, Deven McCourty of Rutgers and Kareem Jackson of Alabama. The one exception is Florida State's Patrick Robinson.

"Somebody's going to take Robinson, but I'm not a big Patrick Robinson guy," said Mayock, a former NFL corner with the Giants. "He's got beautiful feet and change-of-direction skills. But he's not physical and is totally inconsistent . . .

"Haden and Wilson both will tackle. Wilson is a little more selective. McCourty is more like a [No.] 30 to 40 pick. He may be the best special teams player in the draft overall. But if you're looking for a pure corner, he's got really good straight-line speed, but I'm not sure he's an elite corner from a cover perspective."

A corner who Mayock thinks would be a good fit for the Eagles is Alabama's Jackson, a 5-11, 192-pounder.

"He's a guy who's picking up steam," he said. "A Nick Saban corner, when you see those guys, typically they're well-coached. They're physical. This kid will tackle. He ran better than people expected [4.41 at the scouting combine in late February]. Some people think he'll sneak into the first round. I think he's a second-rounder. But he's a guy that would make some sense on the other side of Asante." *

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