Not a whole lot has changed when you look out and see Jim Johnson's defense lines up. Same frenetic pre-snap movement. Same juggling of personnel. Same aggressive approach to pressure the line of scrimmage. Oh, there is no No. 20, and while that may qualify as a cataclysmic change in some Eagles' fans eyes, the departure of Brian Dawkins is the only real difference in the front-line rotation of players on this defense.
That the Eagles must replace Dawkins is, of course, an obvious challenge for 2009. He brought so much emotional fury and dedication to the game that we can only hope that players like Quintin Demps, who is the starting free safety at the moment, learned enough in a year's time spent with Dawkins to successfully make the transition when the games begin.
As the Eagles wrap up their post-draft mini-camp on Sunday and then go back and evaluate the good points and those that need to improve, they will look at the subtle parts of the defense that only the coaches and players can understand. There is no tackling in this camp, and without that, how in the world can you judge a defense? Take away the tackling and, really, what do you have?
"Communication," said Demps. "Making sure everybody is in the right place at the right time. That's what this camp is all about, getting everybody on the same page and learning from our mistakes."
There are some notable battles to watch on a defense that ranked third in the league in 2008 and is aiming for more this season. Juqua Parker and Victor Abiamiri are splitting reps with the first-team defense at left end, and it appears they will battle for the starting job when training camp arrives in a virtual dead heat. Omar Gaither continues to push to get his starting job back at the WILL linebacker spot, where Akeem Jordan is currently holding down the fort and playing fast in this camp. The cornerback group is talented and hungry and experienced with starters as Asante Samuel and Sheldon Brown lead the way as starters here.
Safety is the spot to watch, specifically Demps and newcomers Sean Jones, Rashad Baker and draft pick Macho Harris. Quintin Mikell is the starting strong safety and he really should get some Pro Bowl consideration with another strong season. Who plays free safety? Demps is the guy.
Whatever that means.
"Every day is a test and I know we have a lot of talented players here," said Demps. "It's good competition. I'm just out there learning every day, trying to get better every day. That is all I can control."
How Johnson works in the likes of Jones, a strong safety who has been an outstanding ball hawk in Cleveland, and Baker, who kind of came from nowhere to enjoy a strong season in Oakland last year, remains to be seen. Both of those players, along with Harris -- who could see time at both safety and at cornerback, which would make him tremendously valuable for the defense -- have a lot to learn.
Ditto Demps, the second-year man who has a head start on a first-string job because he was here an entire rookie season absorbing everything like a sponge. Demps is a good athlete, fast sideline to sideline, and he knows that the more he masters the system, the faster and more instinctive he will play.
"It's coming along fine," he said. "I'm working hard at it, learning a lot, hoping to get better. Every day I'm here, getting after it."
The theme for the defense is this: Talk, talk, talk. Communicate. There is so much continuity with 10 starters returning, and yet without Dawkins some out there think the missing link is the veteran who is going to step forward as the leader.
"We have a lot of leaders, guys who have played together," said middle linebacker Stewart Bradley. "Guys just naturally step into that role. We're seeing that happen already."
The Eagles spent a large portion of their assets in the off-season addressing the offense. So how does the defense improve from last year? It does so by having young players, like Demps, mature into their new roles. It happens by adding a veteran like Ellis Hobbs to an already-deep group of cornerbacks, and by bringing in veterans like Jones and Baker at safety.
It happens by using weekends like this as a learning tool. The Eagles are just a little bit better this weekend because they are talking, and listening, and doing it over and over again. They have a void to fill with Dawkins gone, no question. But every player in this league is replaceable, and the Eagles are out on the field five times in this camp learning more and more about where they are as a defense, and about where they need to be to be the best in the league.