When the Eagles released weakside linebacker Takeo Spikes in early March, they cut loose the services of a 10-year veteran whose mind was sharp but whose body had suffered the beating of time.
For many fans, it was a controversial move. Why cut loose a former Pro Bowl player who has seen just about everything there is to see in the NFL? Still, in his wake, Spikes left behind another eight years of experience at the outside linebacker positions.
The difference that irked so many people? This time, it was eight years from three players combined.
Sure, Omar Gaither, Chris Gocong and Akeem Jordan are "unproven." Their names probably don't ring a bell with even the most hardcore football fans around the country. Their jerseys aren't mass-produced and in stores. Only one of the three – Gaither – even played college football in a power conference.
But the speed, the athleticism, the statistics and the will are undeniable. It's why the coaches trusted these guys enough to cut loose the unit's veteran leader.
Training camp is the step for Gaither, Gocong and Jordan to become the mainstays that define the defense.
"Bottom line," said Gaither, "the coaches won't put you on the field if they don't trust you."
Gaither, especially, has been thrown into the fire ever since his rookie campaign in 2006. Last season, he started all 16 games in the middle, recording 170 tackles. Now, he shifts outside to replace Spikes at WILL, his natural position.
Gocong will be the starter on the strong side for the second straight season after missing his rookie campaign with a stinger injury. The coaches liked what they saw from the converted defensive end, who provided 92 tackles and has solid pass-rush potential. Toward the end of the 2007 season, defensive coordinator Jim Johnson wasn't shy about using Gocong as an end/linebacker hybrid, similar to the Joker position he used with Jevon Kearse.
Behind the presumptive starters, Jordan continues to take strides after making the team last fall as a rookie free agent. Though smallish at 230 pounds, Jordan is fast and fantastic in pass coverage.
Rocky Boiman enters his first season in Philadelphia after signing a one-year deal in late March. However, Boiman's services will likely be mostly utilized on special teams, where he was a major contributor for the Colts' Super Bowl championship team in 2006.
In the draft, the Eagles took another flier on a super-productive defensive end from a small school, much like Gocong. Sixth-round pick Andy Studebaker from Wheaton College is making the shift to strongside linebacker, after impressing the Eagles enough with an impressive workout and a similarly eye-popping YouTube highlight tape.
Justin Roland, a rookie free agent from Kansas State, impressed coaches enough in Organized Team Activities (OTAs) to earn an invite to training camp.
A YEAR AGO ...
Spikes started the first 14 games of last season at WILL, and his 139 tackles must be replaced. The transition should be eased with Stewart Bradley's emergence in the middle, allowing Gaither to shift out to the weak side.
Gocong made 92 tackles and was moved around, something that should continue as he gains more experience. Jordan made 20 tackles in a reserve role, and figures to see more action, especially on passing downs.
BATTLE TO WATCH: Boiman vs. Youth
Boiman is the oldest player among the Eagles' linebackers as a seven-year veteran. His special teams abilities could give him a boost in making the roster, but head coach Andy Reid has mad no qualms in the past about cutting a veteran in favor of a younger guy.
Boiman could actually also be in competition here with two guys in the middle, Joe Mays and Pago Togafau, who figure to play a lot of special teams as well.