Earl Wolff already has mastered one aspect of winning the approval of Eagles fans. The safety cited the franchise's icon at that position as his inspiration.

"Before I even started playing safety, I watched Brian Dawkins," said Wolff, the Eagles' fifth-round pick out of North Carolina State. "Once I made that move to safety, that's when I fell in love with him. Honestly, my first couple of years, that's what I watched before the games. I'd put on a Brian Dawkins highlight film, and now I'm here."

It's appropriate that Wolff was drafted by the Eagles, who have been searching for solutions at safety ever since Dawkins departed after the 2008 season. Though most of the attention will be on the quarterbacks when the Eagles begin organized team activities on Monday, safety will be one of the most contested positions.

Free agents Patrick Chung and Kenny Phillips were signed during the offseason, although neither was aggressively courted by his former team. Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman are the incumbents, but the fact that the Eagles pursued Chung and Phillips serves as a telling indicator of the veterans' stock. Then there are Colt Anderson, a special-teams ace who hasn't been regarded as starting-caliber, and Wolff.

The competition is likely to last through the preseason. Allen still must prove worthy of the second-round pick the Eagles used on him in 2010. A new coaching staff and scheme might help.

"It's a grind; everybody's good," Chung said last week at the NFL's career-development symposium. "And because everyone's good, it's kind of like college all over again. . . . It brings the confidence and continuity to the group."

Two players need to emerge, although the Eagles don't want to categorize them as a free safety and a strong safety. Coach Chip Kelly said he prefers a left safety and a right safety, so opposing offenses don't always know the player's role.

"In the ideal world, you'd like to have two guys that can do both and can play in the middle of the field and come down in the box," Kelly said. "If you don't, then you need to scheme it out schematically to make sure that you do. We're a ways away from making those decisions in terms of what we have from that standpoint."

The Eagles were expected to draft a safety last month, and it came as a surprise when they waited until the fifth round. The Eagles said that they did not view Wolff as a fifth-round pick - that he was a potential pick in the fourth round if quarterback Matt Barkley had not been available.

Wolff played in the box during his senior season at North Carolina State because of inexperienced linebackers, but he is confident that he also can play deep safety. Roster spots also depend on special-teams ability.

"I feel I can come and contribute," Wolff said. "If it's special teams, then special teams. I feel I can come and help out in the safety position. I feel I'm pretty versatile."

It's unfair to draw comparisons between Dawkins and Wolff, despite similar size (Wolff is 5-foot-11, 209 pounds; Dawkins played at 6-0, 210 pounds) and early praise for leadership qualities. Wolff needs to prove first that he is worthy of playing on special teams, much less contributing on defense.

And there's another connection to Dawkins. Wolff's position coach at North Carolina State was Mike Reed, who spent time with the Eagles from 2002-06. Wolff said Reed and Dawkins maintain a strong relationship, and Reed helped Wolff understand what made Dawkins excel. Wolff has tried to apply both the tangible and intangible qualities, and he will use them to try to become a safety who sticks.

"I play the game with passion, and I kind of took that from him," Wolff said. "And he flies around and makes plays. That's what I'm all about. That's what I want to be."