Young secondary ready to take charge

PHILADELPHIA -- There will be a time this season, Sheldon Brown is confident, when the Philadelphia Eagles cornerback will make a big play to win a huge game.

The third-year veteran will close explosively on an "out" pattern, snag an interception and take it all the way to the house. Or he will recover, running deep with some wide receiver sprinting up the sideline, in time to close the separation and to close the deal. Maybe it will be a play in the corner of the end zone, where he flicks away a potential touchdown pass, getting just a couple fingers on it to send the ball harmlessly errant.

No matter the defining moment of his first season as an Eagles full-time starter, Brown knows exactly what he will do afterwards, perhaps as he cradles a game ball.

"I'm going to get right on the phone with Troy (Vincent)," said Brown, referring to the former Philadelphia stalwart cornerback who served as a surrogate father of sorts from the time that the onetime South Carolina star entered the league in 2002. "And I'm going to say, 'I did it! I did it, Troy!' And I'm going to thank him for everything he taught me."

Which is, apparently, quite a lot.

There are no tangible signs in the Philadelphia locker room that the classy Vincent, who exited the franchise this spring after eight years with the Eagles and signed with Buffalo as an unrestricted free agent, was ever here. There are no relics, either, to suggest that his longtime running mate, Bobby Taylor, now with the Seattle Seahawks, roamed the halls of the NovaCare Complex training facility.

Whatever the two veteran cornerbacks left behind, they left behind in the memory banks and the hearts of Brown and fellow first-year starter Lito Sheppard, two youngsters who hope that their shared tenures are every bit as significant here as the two men who they are succeeding this season.

The two young corners, Sheppard the more excitable and Brown the more thoughtful and evocative, speak in near-reverent tones about their departed mentors. They are in awe, it seems, of what Taylor and Vincent accomplished here. What does not seem to daunt the young corners, though, is replacing two guys who are legends in these parts.

"Sure, we miss those guys, absolutely," Sheppard acknowledged. "But we can't just be looking around, waiting for them to suddenly show up again, you know? As much as we miss them, they're gone now, and all that's left are the lessons they taught us."

Remarkably for a franchise that has advanced to three consecutive NFC championship games, the Eagles could have as many as nine starters changed from the offensive and defensive lineups that opened in last year's conference title game loss to Carolina. That is a major overhaul for any team, let alone one that has been good enough to move to within one victory of a Super Bowl berth in 2001, 2002 and 2003.

But none of the new starters -- no, not even wide receiver Terrell Owens or defensive end Jevon Kearse -- figures to encounter the scope of scrutiny that Sheppard and Brown likely will face in 2004. They are replacing two fixtures in the Philadelphia secondary, veterans whose contributions to a once-struggling franchise were considerable, a cornerback duet which set a very high standard, indeed.

So Sheppard and Brown, with just a dozen starts between them, and only one of those starts together, have to be better than good. They have to be very good, not just individually but in tandem as well. Make no mistake: They know that. They understand the legacy they are being counted on to uphold. They know the spotlight has definitely shifted their way.

And they know their time has arrived.

"When the three of us were all rookies," said Sheppard, including strong safety Michael Lewis, who also came into the league as part of the Eagles' 2002 draft class, "we would stand on the sidelines in practice, and watch the older guys and every move they made. And we'd kind of say to each other, 'That's going to be us someday, you know, because it's just a matter of time.' We were sort of (reminiscing) about that the other day. And now, for sure, our time is here."

The Eagles organization always knew, even if not precisely, that this day would arrive. Exercising the kind of foresight that is rare in the league, Philadelphia exercised each of its first three selections in the '02 draft on defensive backs. Sheppard, who starred at the University of Florida, was chosen in the first round. Lewis, of Colorado, was the earlier of the club's second-round picks and Brown, who played collegiately at South Carolina, was the latter selection in the stanza.

Only two other times since the 1970 merger, with Green Bay in 1999 and San Diego in the 2003 lottery, have teams opened the draft by choosing three straight defensive backs. With cornerback Mike McKenzie holding out, the Packers have none of the three in camp. San Diego is filtering in its threesome as the team rebuilds. But Lewis is entering his second season as the Philadelphia starting strong safety and now he will be flanked by his close friends on the corners.

There is no denying how unusual it is for a team that is once again the early-line favorite to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XXXIX to be starting such callow corners together. But under its current front office, Philadelphia seems to have mastered the elusive art of knowing when it is time to cut ties with longtime veterans, and of having replacements ready to be elevated to the first unit. Given the actuary-like models used by president Joe Banner, arguably the NFL's best salary cap manager, everyone knew there would come a time when Vincent and Taylor were allowed to walk away.

Brown and Sheppard knew it and so they spent hours over the past two seasons as human sponges, trying to soak up as much knowledge and nuance as they could.

"I think the biggest thing Troy taught me," said Brown, "was that there is a high standard that has to be maintained. That you should never tolerate losing. That you have to make every moment count in this league. That the sky is the limit and you should never settle for just settling. I know those are the kinds of things I'm trying to pass on to the younger (cornerbacks) here. If I didn't accept that as part of my role, what would that say about me? It would dishonor the things Troy did for me. It would reflect poorly on the lessons that he taught me and I'm not going to let that happen."

It is ironic that Brown, at age 25, would refer to the younger cornerbacks on the Philadelphia roster. But such is the gamble Eagles management has made at the position that he and Sheppard, incredibly, are the graybeards at the position.

Of the seven cornerbacks on the camp roster, four are rookies, Brown and Sheppard are entering their third seasons, "nickel" defender Roderick Hood his second year. There are just 74 regular-season appearances and 12 starts aggregate in the cornerback corps. Yet no one seems overly concerned.

After the Eagles failed to lure unrestricted free agent Fred Thomas from New Orleans -- the Saints standout insists he literally had to escape the clutches of Philadelphia officials to re-sign with his incumbent franchise -- team officials here never really pursued another veteran for the secondary. They opted, instead, to roll the dice with the kiddie corps of cornerbacks and, at least publicly, don't seem overly concerned by the lack of experience at such a critical position.

Maybe their confidence is warranted. Brown may not have prototype physical tools but is an incredibly hard worker, and has three interceptions playing in "sub" defenses over the past two seasons. As the team's "nickel" corner in 2003, the every-enthusiastic Sheppard had just one interception but ranked among the NFL leaders in passes defensed.

"Man, if I had just held onto half of the ball I got my hands on, I would have had a lot of (interceptions)," Sheppard said. "But I'll catch those balls this year. I've worked hard on that, hard on knowing where the ball is, of being more aware. Bobby and Troy always told us that it's not how you start a play, it's how you finish it. Me and Sheldon, we're going to finish plays this year. We're going to make Troy and Bobby proud of us and we're going to make us proud of ourselves."

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.