One is a quiet, lanky, fourth-year veteran who went undrafted out
of Missouri Southern, was signed and cut by the Eagles shortly
thereafter and was Philadelphia's marquee off-season signee of
2001. The other is a compact, scenery-chewing star-in-the-making,
a hotshot rookie from UCLA who's miffed that he was only the 25th
pick in the draft. The veteran is soft-spoken and polite almost
to a fault, referring so often and earnestly to his hope that he
"just makes the team" that you'd think he's the rookie. The
rookie, with his winning grin and oaken voice, seems every bit
the old pro.
So when wideouts James Thrash and Freddie Mitchell stepped into
line for the first passing drill in the first minicamp practice,
in May, they eyed each other suspiciously. "We were wary of each
other," says Mitchell, the rookie, "for, oh, maybe two minutes.
As soon as we started talking, it was great. James went out of
his way to be cool, to take me under his wing and give me
pointers. It's been great between us."
True, James? "I like helping him out," says Thrash. "I think
Freddie's going to be great, with all his speed and quickness.
Me, I just want to make this team."
Such is life for the two crucial additions to perhaps the NFL's
most harmonious team. Last year the Eagles rode second-year
quarterback Donovan McNabb and a stifling defense to an 11-5
regular-season record and an NFC wild-card win over the
Buccaneers. Despite a mediocre receiving corps and the loss of
star tailback Duce Staley to a broken right foot in Week 5,
Philadelphia survived on the brilliance of McNabb, who accounted
for a preposterous 75% of the Eagles' total offense and was
second to the Rams' Marshall Faulk in league MVP voting. To
expect such production from McNabb again would be absurd, and
with the return of a healthy Staley, Philly shouldn't have to.
That doesn't mean the Eagles are without question marks. Coach
Andy Reid released last year's starting wideouts, Charles Johnson
and Torrance Small, in the off-season, and Philadelphia's top
four receivers now have combined for 102 NFL catches. "It hurt to
release those two, especially since Charles was one of my
favorite guys on this team," Reid says. "But we've invested a lot
of time and effort and money in our young guys, and they need to
get their reps. James and Freddie have been everything we hoped
they'd be so far."
For all their differences, both share a spartan work ethic and a
fiery desire to prove doubters wrong. For Thrash the slights
began when the Eagles released him three days before training
camp in 1997. The 48 hours that followed, he says, were lousy. "I
sat there in my apartment in Joplin [Mo.] and started to
reprioritize my life, thinking that maybe the NFL wasn't in my
future," Thrash says. "Then Washington called."
He was a kick returner and backup receiver for the Redskins until
injuries last year propelled him into the starting lineup. He
proved to be one of Washington's few bright spots, catching
Reid's eye with a five-reception, 121-yard day against the Eagles
in Week 13. Able to stretch defenses with his speed and fearless
when going over the middle, Thrash will shoulder Johnson's former
duties as No. 1 receiver. "The way I see it, last year I did that
too," he says with a shrug.
Brash and flashy as a collegian, Mitchell wasted no time making a
good first impression with the Eagles. Shortly after being
drafted he spent several days working out with McNabb at McNabb's
house in Scottsdale, Ariz. Mitchell, who at 5'10" was considered
too short by most teams, prefers not to dwell on the fact that he
was the fifth receiver drafted. "Apparently I was missing
something for a lot of teams to pass on me like that," he says.
"This is a great place for me."
"I think it says a lot about Coach Reid that he didn't just rely
on signing some big-name free-agent receiver," says new defensive
end Ndukwe Kalu, who's questionable for the opener because of a
high left ankle sprain suffered in last Thursday's preseason game
against the Titans. "He went out and found a guy who's ready to
blow up. That's scouting."
The signing of Kalu also seems prescient. After an impressive
1999 season as a part-time pass rusher, Kalu was buried last year
behind Bruce Smith on the Redskins' depth chart. This year he'll
see plenty of action on one of the NFL's sturdiest lines, which
features All-Pro right end Hugh Douglas along with tackles Hollis
Thomas and Corey Simon. "We just want to pick up where we left
off," says Thomas of the NFC's top-ranked defense in points
allowed last year.
After last year's breakthrough only Philadelphia's first division
title in 13 years will satisfy its fans' expectations. To that
end the Eagles will have to solve the Giants, who have beaten
Philly nine consecutive times. Given the Eagles' returning star
power, unseating New York seems possible--so long as their new duo
is indeed dynamic.
COLOR PHOTO: TODD WARSHAW/ALLSPORT Douglas and the NFL's stingiest defense will be even better at pressuring passers this season.
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS THOMAS
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Eagles
"How good is Donovan McNabb? Good Lord, he made it look so easy
last year--and it wasn't.... The Eagles may not say so, but
they've got to be worried about Duce Staley, regardless of how he
has looked in the preseason. The type of injury he had to his
foot can be a recurring thing. And they're awfully thin behind
him.... They helped themselves at wide receiver. James Thrash is
solid, and Freddie Mitchell was good value that low in the first
round. It says something about Andy Reid's confidence level. He
knows he doesn't necessarily need a game-breaking wideout, just a
reliable guy who'll help Donovan and move the chains.... Anybody
who questions Reid's ability to see talent should look no further
than Chad Lewis. I wouldn't have taken him on waivers two years
ago--he couldn't block a soul--but the Eagles' staff made him a Pro
Bowler.... The line is solid, and Tra Thomas has Pro Bowl
potential.... Their defense will be dominating again. A guy I
really like is Hollis Thomas, who's a real complement to Corey
Simon at tackle. Their entire D-line rotation is impressive,
especially the spot guys like Paul Grasmanis.... Now that he's
finally in the right defense, Hugh Douglas will stay dominant....
Jeremiah Trotter is a beast, and the kid they drafted in the
second round [Arkansas's Quinton Caver] was a steal.... They're
easily good enough to knock off the Giants and win the division."
Sept. 9 ST. LOUIS
16 at Tampa Bay
23 at Seattle
Oct. 7 ARIZONA
14 Open date
22 at N.Y. Giants (Mon.)
Nov. 4 at Arizona
18 at Dallas
29 at Kansas City (Thurs.)
Dec. 9 SAN DIEGO
16 at Washington
22 at San Francisco (Sat.)
30 N.Y. GIANTS
2001 SCHEDULE STRENGTH
NFL rank: 28 (tie)
Opponents' 2000 winning percentage: .465
Games against playoff teams: 6
PROJECTED LINEUP with 2000 statistics
COACH: Andy Reid; third season with Philadelphia (16-16 in NFL)
2000 RECORD: 11-5 (second in NFC East)
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total): offense 15/20/17; defense 20/7/10
OFFENSIVE BACKS PVR*
QB Donovan McNabb 17 569 att. 330 comp. 58.0% 3,365 yds.
21 TDs 13 int. 77.8 rtg.
RB Duce Staley 56 79 att. 344 yds. 4.4 avg. 25 rec.
201 yds. 8.0 avg. 1 TD
RB Correll 228 106 att. 750 yds. 7.1 avg. 5 rec.
Buckhalter (R)[N] 85 yds. 17.0 avg. 8 TDs
FB Cecil Martin 314 13 att. 77 yds. 5.9 avg. 31 rec.
219 yds. 7.1 avg. 0 TDs
RECEIVERS, SPECIALISTS, OFFENSIVE LINEMEN
WR James Thrash[N] 80 50 rec. 653 yds. 2 TDs
WR Todd Pinkston 134 10 rec. 181 yds. 0 TDs
WR Freddie Mitchell(R)[N] 157 77 rec. 1,494 yds. 9 TDs
TE Chad Lewis 82 69 rec. 735 yds. 3 TDs
K David Akers 186 34/36 XPs 29/33 FGs 121 pts.
PR Brian Mitchell 175 32 ret. 10.5 avg. 1 TD
KR Brian Mitchell 175 47 ret. 23.9 avg. 1 TD
LT Tra Thomas 6'7" 349 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG John Welbourn 6'5" 318 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Bubba Miller 6'1" 305 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG Jermane Mayberry 6'4" 325 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RT Jon Runyan 6'7" 330 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LE Brandon Whiting 34 tackles 3 1/2 sacks
LT Corey Simon 52 tackles 9 1/2 sacks
RT Hollis Thomas 58 tackles 4 sacks
RE Hugh Douglas 54 tackles 15 sacks
OLB Carlos Emmons 78 tackles 1/2 sack
MLB Jeremiah Trotter 120 tackles 3 sacks
OLB Mike Caldwell 63 tackles 0 sacks
CB Troy Vincent 74 tackles 5 int.
SS Damon Moore 70 tackles 2 int.
FS Brian Dawkins 71 tackles 4 int.
CB Bobby Taylor 45 tackles 3 int.
P Sean Landeta 86 punts 42.3 avg.
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 119)
"Lewis couldn't block a soul two years ago, but the Eagles'
staff made him a Pro Bowler."