There were times in the spring when No. 55 ran into the flat and picked up tight end Brent Celek, and then ran step for step with the young standout and at the last second reached out and broke up the pass and then clapped his hands and ran back into the huddle. It was one small step for Stewart Bradley and one large step for the Eagles defense, which learned last season that life without Bradley was not very pleasant at all.
Having Bradley in the starting lineup at middle linebacker is critical for the defense. A three-down player who has cover skills, who plays the run well and who has excellent timing with his blitzes, Bradley was on the verge of earning some Pro Bowl recognition before he tore his anterior cruciate ligament last summer and sat out all of 2009.
After a dedicated rehabilitation program, Bradley returned to the field for the post-draft practices at the NovaCare Complex and he looked great until suffering a calf strain. Using caution, the Eagles sent Bradley to the sidelines and kept him there for the final two weeks of the OTAs and Bradley worked in the shadows preparing for 2010.
Training camp nears, and the full expectation is that Bradley will be 100 percent healthy and that he will take part in the two-a-day practices at Lehigh University and that if the Eagles feel a need to give Bradley a rest and allow him to back off from time to time, they will do so. Bradley looked all the way back from his knee injury to the naked eye of the sideline observers, but of course the Eagles watched the practices over and over again searching for more clues about his timing and the strength in his leg and his quickness and his lateral movement.
Once the pads go on, of course, Bradley will be judged on a more clear-cut basis. His job is to be a leader for the defense and to make plays and to be the focal point of the front seven in Sean McDermott's scheme.
"I think things came along really well for me and I'm excited to be back out there," said Bradley, prior to his calf injury. "I feel really good. I worked hard and did everything Rick (head athletic trainer Burkholder) and his staff wanted me to do and it paid off. Last year was hard in a lot of ways. It was difficult not being out there with the guys. At the same time, I approached the game from a different angle and when you combine all of that, I'm going to be a better player for it.
"That's the approach. I'm taking the positive out of a negative situation last year."
Look for McDermott to put Bradley in position to make a lot of plays. At 6 feet 4, and 258 pounds, Bradley brings a lot of strength and power and wingspan and speed to the position. He is expected to get to the football and, certainly, offenses will have to account for him. What other players on this defense do offenses scheme against? Trent Cole? Asante Samuel? Having that third piece is critical, and Bradley is that guy.
Of course, the reliance on Bradley is a dangerous thing, too. The Eagles must make sure they are better prepared should Bradley need more rest, or if he shows some rust early in the season or if teams scout him so extensively that they find a step back in his return to the lineup. To expect Bradley to return and pick up where he left off is ambitious, and the scouting process is so extensive that if Bradley has a hiccup in any phase of his game, teams will find it.
The good news, though, is that Bradley is strong and healthy and eager to get back on the field. He was able to attack practices until the calf injury, and there was no swelling and no pain in his knee. We'll know just how close to 100 percent Bradley is once the pads are on at Lehigh, and his performance is absolutely one of the key storylines of camp.
McDermott's defense hung in admirably for much of 2009 without Bradley. With No. 55 back on the field, the defense needs to take a step forward. The Eagles have changed a lot of pieces of their front seven, having added some pass rushers, veteran linebacker Ernie Sims and some depth all around, and if all goes according to the hopeful plan, the Eagles are going to be faster, more explosive and deeper and, yes, better, along the front seven.
Bradley is the key cog here, make no mistake. His is an emerging star linebacker whose value to the defense was calculated quite clearly last season. The Eagles couldn't replace his loss. They went through one, two, three, four linebackers and there wasn't a suitable replacement. McDermott literally went game by game trying to piece together a plan to cover up the limitations of the middle linebacker.
Now McDermott has a major piece back, and with that he has the flexibility that Bradley's return provides. It is huge that Bradley is ready to go, and in a month's time we will see just how markedly different this Eagles defense is with Bradley in the starting lineup and on top of his game.