Soon, it will be a big story. When the Eagles gather again at training camp, and they will answer the question: Who steps up as a leader on the defense? And invariably, the answer will come not from what the players say, but from what they do in crunch time during the season. The defense, while returning 10 starters from last year, also has to find its identity as a group.
When the players were asked during the spring, they didn't seem to think it would be a big issue at all. One after another of them agreed that moving on without a veteran as respected and admired as Brian Dawkins required a certain adjustment. No doubt that not seeing Dawkins in the huddle, for example, was a bit of a jolt at first, but that the natural progression of the practices and the life in the NFL where everyone understands it can end very quickly, allowed players to focus on the here.
And now as the Eagles move to within a month of the start of training camp, it is natural to wonder again who is "the leader" on defense. Truth be told, there is never "one guy" who is the leader. Leadership is a team thing. If, however, you are looking for a "leader" to emerge, there are some worthy candidates. Here is a list from this perspective ...
**QUINTIN MIKELL, safety
Great team player, very respected in the locker room. Quintin Mikell has the presence in the secondary to command leadership and he has the rags-to-riches story -- non-drafted player to quality starter -- that every player understands and admires. Mikell has been in the scheme, he has been in Philadelphia and he spent years learning from Dawkins. Mikell isn't a fist-pumping kind of leader, but he will speak up when he feels the need.
**STEWART BRADLEY, middle linebacker
Very vocal, extremely hard working and well liked, Stewart Bradley has already stepped up into the role. Understand that the linebackers have grown up together, and all of them are extremely close. They know the system. They know each other. They are a glue in this defense, and Bradley as a middle linebacker natural fills that leadership role. He runs the huddle and has the command there. Bradley won't back down from the challenge of stepping up here. He is already on the way to being a Pro Bowl linebacker. The players know the space he has in the locker room.
**SHELDON BROWN, cornerback
Is his contract issue one that will impact Sheldon Brown and his standing in the locker room? It shouldn't be a factor at all. Players understand the business aspect of the game. It is expected that Brown will come to training camp on time and in great shape, and then he will be one of the best players on the defense. He is a student of the game, an excellent cornerback and a big part of the defense. Brown's voice is heard in the locker room. He is cordial with the press. Brown is tough, prepared and has a strong work ethic.
**ASANTE SAMUEL, cornerback
Another member of the secondary. It sure is promising that the Eagles have so much experience throughout the defense. Asante Samuel skipped the last week of the mini-camp and some out there wondered if that would hurt his credibility in the locker room. I seriously doubt it. Samuel took care of his personal business and will be at training camp and then will show leadership during the practices that few have shown during the many years I've watched Eagles practices. He is vocal and he is engaging and he is challenging and he is funny. Samuel is a leader, no doubt about that. He is a tactician and a tremendous cornerback. Plus, he has the championship pedigree from his days in New England, and that helps in the locker room.
**BRODRICK BUNKLEY, defensive tackle
Not only is Brodrick Bunkley becoming a top-notch defensive tackle; he is also becoming an emotional leader who knows when to turn it on. You may not see Bunkley and his emotions, but the players do. Bunkley is pure energy on game days and he bleeds the game. Don't worry about the Eagles lacking emotion with Dawkins in Denver. There will be plenty of it, in large part because the defense has so much swagger and so many high expectations already. Bunkley is somebody who will keep the players fired up in the huddle and in the locker room before the games.