Hugh Douglas, the Eagles' most proficient pass-rusher during coach Andy Reid's first four seasons as head coach, had signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars during the 2003 free-agent period, and now the search was on for the team's next disruptive defensive end.
The draft seemed like a logical place to start, so the Eagles maneuvered from the 30th overall pick to the 15th selection and grabbed Jerome McDougle from the University of Miami.
Oops, that didn't work.
They also took McDougle's Miami teammate Jamaal Green in the fourth round of that same draft.
The next move was to lavish Jevon Kearse with an eight-year, $66 million free-agent contract before the 2004 season. Four pedestrian years and 22 sacks later, Kearse was released.
By the time Kearse departed, the Eagles had found a pass-rushing solution at defensive end by taking an undersized kid from the University of Cincinnati in the fifth round of the 2005 draft.
Entering his fifth NFL season, Trent Cole has 341/2 career sacks and has emerged as the only three-down defensive lineman for the Eagles. He has been to a Pro Bowl and proven that he can defend the run as well as rush the quarterback.
Eagles general manager Tom Heckert openly admitted that Cole wasn't the prototype defensive end the Eagles were looking for when they drafted him.
"We knew he was a good player and we knew he played hard, so we thought he had a chance," Heckert said. "But he wasn't a super-gifted athlete. His numbers weren't great. We thought he was a good player. To say we thought he'd be where he is right now? No, we didn't think that."
Heckert said the Eagles' top priority when looking at defensive ends always starts at the same place.
"Especially for us, you have to be able to rush the passer," he said.
If you look at their college numbers, McDougle had slightly better statistics than Cole, for a far more prolific program. Those numbers are a bit deceiving, however, because Cole spent the first nine games of his sophomore season as a tremendously undersized nose tackle.
"McDougle is a better athlete," Heckert said. "Trent doesn't always win because he's such a great athlete. He's a good athlete, but not a great one. He just fights and fights and fights and he wears a guy down. He makes plays that he probably shouldn't because he goes 100 miles per hour all the time."
Desire and durability seem to be the two things that have allowed Cole to go from a fifth-round pick to a Pro Bowler and double-digit sack threat while McDougle has disappeared from the league.
The desire, according to Cole, emerged during his high school playing days in Xenia, Ohio. It intensified when he slipped to the fifth round of the 2005 draft.
"I think every athlete is insulted when they don't go high in the draft," Cole said. "There is no better place to be than number one, because everybody in this league works hard and wants to be the best. My high motor, I think, came from high school, when I was playing both sides of the ball."
As a high school senior, Cole ran for 1,241 yards and 10 touchdowns as a tailback and was his league's defensive player of the year after recording eight sacks as a linebacker and defensive end.
"I come from a real small town, so I had to play both sides of the ball," he said. "I was always on the field and I also played a lot of sports. I was always going full speed."
As for the durability factor, Cole has missed just one game in four seasons. By contrast, McDougle missed 47 of 80 games during his five seasons with the Eagles, and Kearse was never entirely healthy after his first year in Philadelphia.
What's really surprising about Cole is that he has also emerged as the team's best run-stopping defensive end. When he was drafted, Cole was so undersized that a lot of NFL teams viewed him as an outside linebacker. The Eagles even considered moving him there.
According to Stats Inc., Cole's 191/2 tackles for loss are the most for any player during the last two seasons.
"Yeah, I knew I could do it," Cole said. "I started at nose tackle in college and I had an awesome year doing it. If I could go against guys on the inside I knew I could do it on the outside. I was able to do it by being fast and using my speed. God blessed me with this motor and I use it. If you're given something, you have to use it."
Cole's emergence as a top-tier defensive end hasn't ended the Eagles' search for more quality outside pass rushers, although in the last couple of years they have shown no fear of bringing in undersized players.
Last year, they signed Chris Clemons as a free agent and drafted Bryan Smith in the third round. Both players weigh considerably less than Cole did coming out of college.
"We think third down is the biggest down on both offense and defense, so you have to be able to rush the passer," Heckert said. "We're a little undersized at defensive end, but the guys who are undersized are usually a little better at rushing the passer."
That doesn't mean the Eagles don't have any interest in bigger defensive ends. Victor Abiamiri was a second-round pick in 2007 and he has shown that he is big enough to move inside to defensive tackle on passing downs. That's the same role that Darren Howard had such success with a year ago after contributing little as a free-agent addition in his first two seasons at defensive end.
In the Eagles' defense, the pass-rushing ends come in all shapes and sizes, but none of them has been able to match the intensity and production of Trent Cole.
Contact staff writer Bob Brookover at 215-854-2577 or email@example.com.