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Time For Eagles To Move Together As One

I applaud Brian Westbrook and I applaud Lito Sheppard, both of whom reported to training camp on Thursday and will be in uniform on Friday and beyond. I wonder about Shawn Andrews, the lone Eagle absent as the team went into its 7 p.m. meeting, not sure at all why he did not report. Scott Young? I'm still mystified by the absence in the spring, but he is here and prepared to compete for a job.

Players have to juggle a lot these day, what with the ever-changing landscape in the NFL. The legions of media offer one challenge and, certainly, opportunity. The league is an around-the-clock job now -- you come to training camp in shape or you risk not making the team.

Then there is the money, and it is an issue with Westbrook, and with Sheppard and who knows how many more players in the Eagles locker room and in locker rooms around the league.

Westbrook and Sheppard have been entirely professional in handling their situations, and they have every chance to be treated accordingly by head coach Andy Reid and the Eagles' front office. Sheppard didn't speak to reporters when he reported to Lehigh University -- in fact, reporters didn't even see Sheppard check in -- but Westbrook made his stance clear during a 15-minute interview with the media.

Let's talk about Westbrook, since he was so up front and has been through the whole process. He has a new agent, Todd France, whom Westbrook said has already had talks with the Eagles' front office and will continue to do so. He said he is "optimistic" about a "new contract" and is making sure to take the high road moving forward. This is a negotiation that is likely not to be played out in the media because, well, it's better that way. Westbrook and the Eagles will keep the talk between the two parties and, we all hope, will come to a resolution that makes everyone happy.

What happens next? I think the Eagles value Westbrook and they appreciate the approach he has taken here. And they will take care of business. The Eagles take care of their players, many of whom have signed second and third contracts over the years here (to repeat, the Eagles have had a league-high 90 starters under their second and third contracts since 2002). How it turns out with these players -- Westbrook, Sheppard, Andrews and Young and every other player in this contract-crazy NFL -- hey, I don't know.

But I do know that the Eagles do things the right way, and they will in this instance.

In the meantime, the Eagles have a camp to conduct. Westbrook is, obviously, a hugely vital part of the equation. This is a storyline to follow, but the football side of things takes center stage now. The development of the football team means everything now, as Reid spelled out to his players in the 7 p.m. meeting on Thursday. Every step forward is taken together, starting now.

The business side resolves itself. The Eagles are pleased that Westbrook and Sheppard have reported, and while there are questions still to be answered, it sure makes it easier with both players in the fold.

Andrews' story is a strange one, and in the coming days I'm sure the reasons for his absence will become clear. I spoke to him on Thursday night, wished him the best of luck and hoped everything works out for him.

"In time, it will be," said Andrews.

I'm into the football thing here, not the business side. Joe Banner and Co. will doing their usual good job conducting the contract talks. For the next three weeks, the Eagles are here at Lehigh and a lot of pieces have to come together. In order, here are five Things To Watch once the pads go on ...

1. Developing Confidence Offensively

The pieces return from last year, when the Eagles ranked sixth in the league in total offense and still struggled to score points. What changes this season? A healthy Donovan McNabb needs to be more effective and newcomers Lorenzo Booker and DeSean Jackson have to find their roles in the passing game and in the running game.

The offensive line is going to miss Andrews until he returns, but his absence gives young players like Max Jean-Gilles and draft picks Mike McGlynn and Mike Gibson more practice repetitions. Young factors into the picture here, too. Bottom line: The Eagles must find out about the offensive line in the preseason. They need to know about Winston Justice. They need to know veteran tackles Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan are good to go. They need Andrews and they need the young kids to step up.

I want to see the offense get after it in camp. Play with confidence. Have McNabb get off to a good start and keep the ball rolling after a strong end to last season.

2. Get Young Linebackers Ready

Stewart Bradley is your middle linebacker, Omar Gaither is the WILL, Chris Gocong is the SAM and Akeem Jordan is the handy-dandy fourth linebacker who is going to play a lot of football. I think the Eagles will keep six linebackers. Rocky Boiman, Pago Togafau, Joe Mays and Andy Studebaker are the other contenders.

Bradley needs to show he can handle the middle. Jim Johnson said the young man is well on his way.

"I think we saw a little bit last year. We hope it's a continuation. We saw that he's a guy who can run, he's a pretty good blitzer. Now we need to see if he can handle the defense as a MIKE linebacker in a crucial situation," said Johnson. "We're going to go to a new system this year with the headsets on defense and there are a couple of things that we have to work out, so we'll see how he handles that. Right now, if he just progresses from where he was last year, he'll be fine."

I have very, very high hopes for Gocong, who could be more involved in the blitz game this season. Gaither is just a very good football player, no matter where he plays. And Jordan, you know, I just can't wait to see him develop to another level in camp.

3. Have A Kick Return Game

The preseason is the telling time here, because the Eagles don't go live on special teams in practice. I want to see Jackson and see if those great collegiate skills translate to the Big Leagues. I want to see the Eagles have explosiveness on kickoffs, with either Jackson, Booker or Quintin Demps taking the lead here.

I want big plays. I want speed. I want a return game. Is that too much to ask? Boy, what a difference that would make.

4. Figure Out The Rotation In The Secondary

There sure is a lot of talent,with Asante Samuel, Lito Sheppard, Sheldon Brown, all those safeties who are battling for roster spots. Johnson has to work through the ego thing, and he has to make sure the lines of communication are open, and I have faith that the secondary is going to be every bit the strength we all think it can be this season.

Who starts? I really don't care. Samuel and Sheppard and Brown are going to play a lot. They can match up against any trio of wide receivers the Eagles will see this year.

At safety, Brian Dawkins has to show he still has it. He is in great shape. We spoke briefly on Thursday and he feels "blessed" to be in training camp for another year. I think he is revved up for this camp and for this season. He sees a special opportunity.

5. Have The Best 53 On Board

At the end of the preseason, the responsibility on the coaches and the personnel department is to put together the best 53-man roster possible. There are some great battles here -- running back, wide receiver, defensive end, the back seven on defense. The Eagles have cap room to make moves, and the situation is always fluid at this time of the year.

So we'll see how the whole roster shakes out. I'm looking forward to it. After months and months of waiting, football is really, truly here. We can talk about positions and about the team and about how good the Eagles will be.

There are side stories, yeah, but the overwhelming focus is football, just the way I like it to be.

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