THE EAGLES haven't selected higher than 14th overall in the first round of the NFL draft since 2000, Andy Reid's second season.

When a team consistently chooses well into the first round, it's hard to zero in on a player whom the team covets. It's hard for observers, and it's even hard for the team. General manager Tom Heckert spoke recently of a group of players the Eagles expect to be available when their turn comes this afternoon, 26th overall. Unless you trade up, you can't possibly know which of those players you're going to take. You can like one more than the others, you can hypothesize that he probably will be there because you hear this team likes that guy and that team likes the other guy, but until the team directly ahead of you picks, you can't know for sure.

"Almost every year, you have no idea, the later you pick, obviously," Heckert said. "I bet you there will probably be four guys there that we'll have to make a decision on, but who exactly those four guys are - there are probably 10 guys we would take there. You just don't know which ones are going to be there and which ones aren't."

And yet, a look back over the six Eagles drafts since the Birds selected defensive tackle Corey Simon sixth overall in 2000 shows no real out-of-leftfield shockers. Nothing on the order of Ray Rhodes' 1997 anointing of defensive end Jon Harris at 25th overall, a choice so obscure that reporters covering the Eagles' drafts had to shuffle through reams of printed information just to figure out who in the world the player was.

In 2000, in fact, one story called the drafting of Simon "the most likely scenario for months." The Eagles also were assumed to be interested in wideouts, and in the second round, Todd Pinkston arrived. (Then-GM Tom Modrak described Pinkston as "wiry.")

In 2001, it was a given that the Birds were looking for a wide receiver. There was a lot of predraft talk about Chad Johnson (don't we wish?), but Freddie Mitchell also was mentioned repeatedly, although apparently nobody knew until afterward about Freddie's famous walk-and-nosh at UCLA with Eagles coach Andy Reid, which Reid said convinced him that Freddie was his kind of guy (maybe Freddie bought the burgers?). There seemed to be a line of thinking going in that the Eagles might have to trade up to nab this special talent.

The next year certainly was a surprise to a lot of fans who were lusting after running back DeShaun Foster, but people who covered the team knew the Eagles were thinking more about defensive backs early. They didn't anticipate two corners and a safety (Lito Sheppard, Mike Lewis and Sheldon Brown) with the team's three picks in the first two rounds, but Sheppard's name did come up among a list of possibilities. More or less.

"The Eagles like their corners tall, which would seem to eliminate the 5-10 Sheppard," the Daily News wrote then. Well, hey, with Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent starting then, that was how it seemed. And they did get that running back for the fans eventually, Brian Westbrook arriving in the third round.

The 2003 draft was a little different. The Eagles were scheduled to pick 30th, and were known to be in the market for a tight end. ESPN.com had them taking L.J. Smith in the first round. But there was also talk of defensive linemen, and of Jerome McDougle, although no one really envisioned the Birds trading up from 30th to 15th. Yes, defensive end McDougle stands out as the worst first-round pick of the Reid era so far. But it's interesting to look back at some of the other names of d-linemen the team was assumed to be considering - Kenny Williams, Kenny Peterson, William Joseph, Johnathan Sullivan, Ty Warren, Cory Redding, Tyler Brayton, Dewayne White, Chris Kelsay. The Eagles were not alone in 2003. There were a lot of d-linemen drafted, only to disappoint.

The trade-up from 28th to 16th for Shawn Andrews the next year was less surprising, because we'd seen the team do it so recently. The fans wanted a linebacker, and there was defensive-tackle talk, but the team's interest in an offensive lineman also was well-known, although that was not thought to be a deep talent pool (maybe another reason the trade-up wasn't a shock).

"They probably would need to trade up to nab a true first-round talent, such as Miami's Vernon Carey, or Arkansas' Shawn Andrews," the Daily News wrote.

In 2005, a little more than 3 months after their Super Bowl appearance, the Eagles were drafting 31st, yet much of the predraft focus correctly was placed on defensive tackles, with Simon and Hollis Thomas unhappy. USC's Mike Patterson, the guy the Eagles took, was prominently mentioned, along with Wisconsin's Anttaj Hawthorne.

Last year might have been the most transparent Eagles draft since 2000. Everybody knew the team liked defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley and offensive tackle Winston Justice. The assumption was they would get one of those guys at 14th overall, but they might have to trade up to grab Bunkley. Instead, Bunkley was there at 14 and Justice lasted into the second round, where the Birds traded up to take him 39th overall. There was even talk of the Eagles being interested in former Olympic skiier Jeremy Bloom on the second day, and sure enough, they drafted Bloom in the fifth round.

This year might be the toughest to figure since 2002, when the Eagles last occupied the 26th spot. We know they're looking for a corner and a safety, but they might not have to go for either in the first round. In fact, with only six picks, they might trade out of the first round entirely, if they can restore the fourth-round selection they lost in the Donté Stallworth trade. Certainly, if the Birds don't emerge from the first day with either a corner or a safety and a running back, most observers will be surprised.

Heckert is the guy reporters talk to the most in the weeks leading up to the draft these days. While he would never put the team at a disadvantage by saying, "we hope to draft so-and-so," he tends to give reasonably honest assessments of players. Heckert does not seem to intentionally mislead anyone, indicating intense interest in a player or a position when there is none.

"Teams do it all the time," Heckert said. "I'd rather not say anything [than lay a false trail]." *