The Eagles have certainly been through their fair share of injuries over the last decade, especially to stars such as Donovan McNabb and Brian Westbrook, but one thing has always remained constant: the defense.
Behind Jim Johnson's aggressive, blitz-happy schemes, the Eagles have maintained arguably the NFL's toughest defense over the past decade. This unit has featured twenty six Pro Bowl selections while helping the Eagles advance to the playoffs seven times in ten seasons, including five trips to the conference championship game.
There have been some changes.
Pro Bowlers such as Troy Vincent, Bobby Taylor, Hugh Douglas, Michael Lewis, and Jeremiah Trotter have come and gone, but that has just opened it up for new players like Lito Sheppard, Sheldon Brown, Trent Cole, Quintin Mikell, and Stewart Bradley to step into their new roles.
The defense has always been strong and always been one of the finest in the league.
This past offseason saw the Eagles' D go through the hardest times of them all.
Future Hall of Fame safety Brian Dawkins, a seven-time Pro Bowler and the emotional leader of this Eagles defense, departed via free agency for the Denver Broncos.
Jim Johnson, arguably the greatest defensive coordinator in the history of professional football, took a leave of absence due to his bout with cancer, before he passed away on July 28th.
Now Bradley, a player who was a future Pro Bowler in the making and one of the likely candidates to take over Dawkins' spot as the emotional leader of the team, has suffered a torn ACL that will most likely keep him out for the entire season.
How much can this defense take?
Omar Gaither, the starting middle linebacker for the 2007 season, who actually lost his starting job to Bradley before '08, is expected to start for Bradley as the MIKE linebacker.
Gaither was penciled in as the backup at weak-side linebacker to Akeem Jordan, a player with whom Gaither lost his job before the Week 12 game in '08.
Gaither will compete with Joe Mays and Charleston Hughes for Bradley's starting spot. Mays was Bradley's backup last season and is a solid special teams player. Hughes is an undrafted first-year player who is listed as the third-stringer, behind Bradley and Mays.
I envision Gaither winning the starting spot and having a productive season as the team's middle linebacker.
However, with Gaither most likely thrust into a starting role, the Eagles lose a lot of the depth they had at linebacker.
New defensive coordinator Sean McDermott—the team's former linebackers coach—has a difficult task ahead of him.
The heart and soul of the Eagles' defense—Dawkins and Johnson—are gone. And Bradley is out for the season.
This can't be. This was supposed to be our year.
After ten years of almost, 2009 is the year. This can't happen.
I still think the Eagles will be the team to beat in the NFC East. Probably even the NFC. There's loads of talent on offense, the defense is still better than most of the other units in the league, and the coaching behind Big Red is as fine as ever.
As of now, the Eagles will most likely be putting out Akeem Jordan at WLB, Omar Gaither at MLB, and Chris Gocong at SLB to complete one of the league's youngest linebacker groups.
The backups are Joe Mays, Tracy White, Tank Daniels, Charleston Hughes, and Moise Fokou, none of whom have any starting experience.
Will the Eagles go with their unproven players to fill out the depth chart? Or will the Eagles sign a proven veteran player?
Whatever the team decides to do, it will be a big test to the rest of the guys. McDermott has a tough job ahead of him. He needs the entire defense to step it up and finally once and for all get the Eagles that elusive Super Bowl title.