Team Report: Philadelphia Eagles

Team Report: Philadelphia Eagles

Brian Mitchell proved age is only a number last year when the Eagles' 34-year-old return ace put together the best season of his career. Mitchell finished second in the NFC in kickoff returns with a 27.0-yard average and third in the conference in punt returns with a 12.3-yard average.

Yet, when he became a free agent on Feb. 28, the Eagles didn't try very hard to re-sign him, making him one take-it-or-leave-it offer for the $750,000 veteran minimum. He left it, signing with the Eagles' main NFC East rival, the New York Giants.

There were two reasons the Birds, who've got oodles of salary cap space, weren't willing to offer Mitchell more money to stay in Philadelphia. One was their inflexible philosophy about overpaying players in their thirties (see also their negotiations with defensive end Hugh Douglas). The second was running back Brian Westbrook.

Westbrook, a third-round pick in the '02 draft, is the man head coach Andy Reid and special teams coach John Harbaugh have tabbed to replace Mitchell. While he certainly doesn't have Mitchell's 13 years of NFL experience, Reid and Harbaugh think the former Villanova star has the potential to be one of the league's top return men.

Westbrook's style is nothing like Mitchell's. The 220-pound Mitchell was a "power" return man. He relied on anticipation and strength more than sheer speed, which is one reason he's still going strong in his mid-thirties.

The 5-9, 200-pound Westbrook is more of a make-you-miss runner. Has 4.4 speed. Averaged 4.2 yards per carry last year as a rookie on 46 carries. The Eagles used him mainly out of spread formations.

"I think the world of Brian Westbrook," Harbaugh said. "Brian's a hard worker who has good hands and is a fast decision-maker. He has good vision."

Harbaugh is a little concerned though, that people are going to compare Westbrook to Mitchell right out of the box.

"Brian Mitchell never made a mistake," he said. "There's not another guy in the league as solid. I don't think Brian Westbrook should be held to that expectation."

Harbaugh knows he will be though, particularly with Mitchell playing just up the Jersey turnpike for the Giants. If Mitchell ends up having another terrific season and Westbrook struggles, the radio talk shows will have a picnic second-guessing the Eagles' decision.

Westbrook doesn't seem to be worried that he can't handle the job.

"I think I'm a little quicker than Brian, but he had 20 pounds on me. I learned a lot from working with him last year. I learned how to catch the ball right, read the kicks right."

Westbrook's biggest challenge this year will be staying healthy. One of the reasons he only got 46 carries last season was because he was often nicked up. Was slowed by an ankle sprain for several games and also suffered a broken wrist that needed post-season surgery. Westbrook currently has a splint on the wrist, but expects to have it off in time for the club's first minicamp early next month.

Team Notes:
--The Eagles have been disappointed by the lack of trade interest in quarterback A.J. Feeley. Feeley started five games late last season after starter Donovan McNabb and backup Koy Detmer went down with injuries. He played well, guiding the Eagles to four critical victories. After re-signing Detmer to again back up McNabb, the Eagles were hopeful of trading Feeley to a quarterback-needy team for a draft pick or two. But so far, no one is biting, at least not for the Eagles' third-round asking price. Feeley, a fifth-round pick in the '01 draft, will be a restricted free agent after next season.

Team Skinny:
NEEDS/DRAFT PRIORITIES: TE -- Chad Lewis had just 42 receptions this season and doesn't have much mileage left. The Eagles need someone with a little more seam-splitting speed at TE.

DE -- With Hugh Douglas gone to the Jaguars, and despite the Eagles' optimism about Derrick Burgess's broken foot, they need to have an insurance policy at right end.

WR -- This is still an area that needs to be improved for the offense to be considered first-rate.

FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.

TRANSITION PLAYER: None.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: S Rashard Cook (coming off knee surgery, but valuable as a special-teamer); WR Dameane Douglas (another valuable special-teamer, but he wants a shot at catching passes somewhere); WR Antonio Freeman (Andy Reid has told him he's welcome back. Don't look for anything to happen until June); P Lee Johnson (won't be re-signed); MLB Levon Kirkland (was solid as a between-the-tackles run-defender, but was exposed in space. Eagles need somebody with more speed in the middle); TE Jeff Thomason (No. 2 TE that the Eagles want back).

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.

EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.

PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: LB Keith Adams (ERFA; $375,000/1 yr); LS Mike Bartrum (Potential UFA; $4M/5 yrs, $280,000 SB; 2003 cap: $711,000); QB Koy Detmer (Potential UFA, $3.25M/4 yrs, $650,000 SB; 2003 cap: $698,100).

PLAYERS ACQUIRED: P Dirk Johnson (FA; $942,000/3 yrs, $15,000 SB; 2003 cap: $235,600); FB Jon Ritchie (UFA Raiders; $1.5M/ 2 yrs, $400,000 SB); LB Mark Simoneau (RFA Trade Falcons; $6.7M/5 yrs, $1.5M SB); LB Nate Wayne (FA Packers; $13.23M/4 yrs, $4M SB; 2003 cap: $1.53M).

PLAYERS LOST: LB Shawn Barber (UFA Chiefs; $29.5M/7 yrs, $5.5M SB); S Blaine Bishop (cut); OG Doug Brzezinski (UFA Panthers; $4M/3 yrs, $750,000 SB); DE Hugh Douglas (UFA Jaguars; $27.11M/5 yrs, $6M SB); LB Barry Gardner (UFA Browns; $1.7M/2 yrs, $470,000 SB); CB Al Harris (traded Packers); P Sean Landeta (UFA Rams; 1 yr, terms unknown); RB Dorsey Levens (UFA Giants; $2.48M/3 yrs, $300,000 SB); FB Cecil Martin (UFA Raiders; terms unknown); KR Brian Mitchell (UFA Giants; $3.55M/4 yrs, $500,000 SB).

MEDICAL WATCH: No updates.



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