St. Augustine, Fla. - In recent seasons, fans in Philadelphia have grown accustomed to watching the highest caliber of defensive backs on display every Sunday. Names like Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent were as synonymous to the city of Philadelphia as Philly cheese steak or the Liberty Bell. But all that has changed.
The next generation of Philadelphia defensive backs is here.
Meet Lito Sheppard, Sheldon Brown and Michael Lewis.
Philadelphia witnessed an arrival this season, as cornerbacks Sheppard and Smith, along with safety Lewis - the Eagles first three selections of the 2002 draft class - provided more than a glimpse of the future of the secondary. The future is here and now, as in Pro Bowl nominations for Lewis and Sheppard, and what many consider a Pro Bowl-caliber season by Brown. They've combined with veteran safety Brian Dawkins to form what is considered one of the best defensive backfields in the league on a defense that tied for second in points allowed.
It's all happened so fast for Brown, Lewis and Sheppard that sometimes they have to look back to fully appreciate how quickly it all played out. "We always do," said Brown. "And it happened so fast, it happened overnight. This is our third season and we're starting on a pretty decent team in this league. After you look back on it, it is kind of impressive."
"We obviously do look back, and see where we started at, but we know it's just the beginning," added Sheppard. "To be a great player in this league you have to do it on a regular basis and a constant basis. I think that's the point we want to get to. I don't think we're to a comfort level, but I think we understand where we've come."
That 2002 draft will be remembered as providing three-fourths of the secondary for the Eagles. They used the 26th overall pick on Sheppard, a two-time All American from Florida. Their first of two picks in the second round, at 58 overall, went to Lewis, one of the nation's top defensive backs at Colorado. They used the very next pick, obtained in a trade with Miami, to pluck Brown - a three-year starter at South Carolina who led his team in interceptions in three-straight seasons.
Lewis supplanted veteran Blaine Bishop to become the starter in 2003 and raised his play another level this season, starting 16 games for the second-straight year. Some held their collective breaths on Brown and Sheppard following the departures of Taylor and Vincent, who manned their respective cornerback positions in Philadelphia since 1996. After waiting through what was essentially a two-year training period in their quest to become starters, Brown and Sheppard were handed the cornerback positions this season.
"That the thing people don't realize," said Dawkins. "We lost two of the best cornerbacks Philadelphia has ever had. We put in some talented guys, not some guys just filling the spots. Those guys are talented."
Beyond their surface similarities, the Eagles young trio of defensive backs are essentially brothers in arms. As on-field brothers, they've experienced the ascension to NFL starters since the day they became Philadelphia Eagles in April of 2002. It's a bond, like brotherhood, that will be tough to break.
"It's a wonderful relationship," said Lewis. "We came in together, and we felt like once we got here, it was us against everybody else. We're just a group. We had three other veteran guys here that were starters, but we felt like our time would come to be starters on this team. It turns out this year has really been a large step for us."
Like brothers, Brown, Lewis and Sheppard knew they would be in this together. So often what one was experiencing, so were the other two. The similarities of what they were experiencing eventually brought friendship, competition and trust into the equation. They approached it with the mentality of brothers.
"We had a lot of conversations," recalls Sheppard. "I think that's what brought us as close as we are now. We all talked about it. We talk about everything. When you have somebody to talk to, it makes you, I guess, that much more comfortable with that person. You understand that they understand that you're situation and what you're feeling. That can help each other out in that sense."
"No matter what happens on or off the field, we're going to continue to pull for each other no matter what the situation may be," said Lewis of the brotherhood mentality. We're each other's greatest counselors. Whenever anything comes about, those guys know they can come to me and I know I can go to them for anything."
And, as is often the case, the off-field relationship of Brown, Lewis and Sheppard has a direct impact on the more visible on-field interaction.
"You know you can trust the other guys out there," said Sheppard. "Once you can trust those guys, it allows you to do your job that much better and not worry about what they're going to do. I think as the year went on we continue to progress in that area."
When it comes to their progress, all three pointed to their mutual competition as a focal point that pushed the envelope.
"I think that's big when you have a close-knit group like we are," said Sheppard. "Because you never want to see somebody get left behind when you're working hard and when you're playing to the best of your abilities. I think we all push each other to be the best we can be because we deserve it. We know what we went though when we got here and the work we put in the offseason. It's a motivating factor when you have someone to compete with it makes you that much better. It makes you stand on your game. We all love it because we're in the position to compete with each other."
All three of the third-year players found their own level of individual success in 2004. Brown ranked third on the team in tackles (94) while his three sacks set a club record for sacks by a cornerback. The hard-hitting Lewis was named to his first Pro Bowl after leading the Eagles with 129 total tackles and is quickly developing into a leader on the defense. Sheppard's speed and cover ability led to a team-high five interceptions - including two he returned for touchdowns - to go along with 59 total tackles.
After a season of firsts together, it seems like the only things left for the trio - besides a Super Bowl win, of course - is a nickname to aptly describe their chronicles.
"Yeah, we're working on it right now," admits Lewis. "We haven't come up with a solid nickname."