It's an urban myth that the Eagles believe they could play defense without linebackers.

There is, however, plenty of truth in the belief that the Eagles place lesser draft value on linebackers than they do on quarterbacks, cornerbacks, defensive ends, defensive tackles and offensive tackles. That partly explains why they've never spent a first-round pick on a linebacker since Andy Reid became the head coach in 1999.

"I do think the positions we have drafted [first] are the positions we feel are really tough to find, especially the offensive tackles and defensive ends and even the defensive tackles," general manager Tom Heckert said yesterday as the Eagles continued to prepare for the start of Saturday's NFL draft.

The Eagles aren't alone in their thinking. This team shied away from taking linebackers in the first round long before Reid arrived on the scene. In fact, the Eagles are closing in on three decades since Dick Vermeil selected UCLA's Jerry Robinson with the 21st overall pick in the first round.

Twenty-seven years, six coaches, two owners and zero championships later, they still haven't taken another first-round linebacker. No team in the NFL has gone longer.

"Linebackers - I'm not saying this is the case all the time - the first-round guys might be solid players, but they're not impact players," Heckert said. "But it still comes down to if we have a guy graded that high as a first-round player, I don't think we wouldn't take a guy just because he's a linebacker."

The Eagles' need for a linebacker was reduced last month when they traded defensive tackle Darwin Walker to the Buffalo Bills for linebacker Takeo Spikes, a two-time Pro Bowler. That deal probably means the Eagles' streak without taking a linebacker in the first round will reach 28 years Saturday unless a player they really value drops significantly from the top of the draft board.

One linebacker worth considering, if he somehow drifted to the Eagles' allotted 26th pick, is Mississippi's Patrick Willis. He has been touted as the best inside and overall linebacker in the draft, but he is expected to be gone by the time the Eagles make their pick.

Heckert said the Eagles believed three linebackers were worthy of being first-round picks in this draft. He included Penn State's Paul Posluszny in that group.

"I think he's a first-round player," Heckert said. "I just don't know where he goes."

Two other linebackers many consider first-round picks are Jon Beason, an outside linebacker from Miami, and Lawrence Timmons, an outside linebacker from Florida State.

While it would be earth-shattering, stop-the-presses, we-interrupt-this-program news if the Eagles selected a linebacker in the first round, it wouldn't be even mildly surprising if they used one of their later picks on a linebacker.

Middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter is 30 and knows he is not coming off his best season with the Eagles. Spikes is also 30 and has missed 17 games over the last two seasons because of injuries. Some depth at the position wouldn't hurt, especially if the Eagles decide to cut ties with Dhani Jones, whose $2.35 million salary is a hefty figure for a guy who isn't projected as a starter.

The Eagles have used more second-round picks on linebackers during the Reid era than any other position. You know the names even if you have tried to forget them: Barry Gardner (1999), Quinton Caver (2001), and Matt McCoy (2005). Unless McCoy can bounce back from his unproductive first two seasons with the Eagles, Gardner will go down as the best of that bunch, and that's faint praise to be sure.

It appears as if Reid and Heckert may have drafted a productive linebacker in the fifth round last season when they took Tennessee's Omar Gaither. He replaced McCoy at weakside linebacker with five games left in the regular season and the Eagles' defense improved immediately.

Heckert said Gaither could eventually move to middle linebacker, but right now he's the leading candidate to start at weakside linebacker in 2007. The Eagles also used a third-round pick on Chris Gocong last season and wanted to move him from defensive end to strongside linebacker. The move never occurred because Gocong landed on injured reserve with a neck injury before the season started.

Now, a new year is about to begin with the start of the NFL draft Saturday. Expect the Eagles' long-standing tradition of taking a player other than a linebacker to continue.

Contact staff writer Bob Brookover
at 215-854-2577 or bbrookover@phillynews.com.