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JUDGE: For Eagles, Mitchell's time is now

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Clark Judge

 
   
 

BETHLEHEM, Pa.

The Philadelphia don't need . They need . A year ago the thought so much of Mitchell they made him their first-round draft pick. OK, so it didn't work out so great, but that had as much to do with the as it did Mitchell. In short, the club played it slowly with the rookie, hesitating to cut him loose until the time was right. Well, that time is here. The fell one victory short of the Super Bowl last year, and getting over the hump means getting someone other than to make plays on offense. Star running back could help now that he says he's recovered from a shoulder injury that slowed him last year. But they still need a go-to receiver. And that's where Mitchell comes in. When you see him in training camp, he produces at least one spectacular catch a day. Last week he made two in one session, including a nifty grab over rookie cornerback Lito Sheppard when it appeared Sheppard had inside position. But that's what the expected when they drafted Mitchell, and, quite frankly, it's what Mitchell expects, too. "I'm going to take off," he said. "I'm just going to do it the way Coach (Andy) Reid wants me to do it." Reid wants to proceed with caution, and give the guy the benefit of the doubt. He exerted patience with McNabb, waiting until the time was right to start him, and now the have one of the league's top five quarterbacks. Reid is more cautious with Mitchell, having him learn four positions at wide receiver while the club sticks with and as its starters. Of the two, it is Pinkston who should feel the heat. He makes big plays; he just doesn't make enough of them. So he will compete with Mitchell for a job, with Mitchell starting a step behind while he learns all the wide receiver spots. And that's the next hurdle: It's not talent holding back, it's the playbook. "He has so much to learn that it can be confusing," one teammate said of Mitchell. "But watch him take off after the fourth or fifth game. By then, he should have it all down." By then, the could use the help. They don't play an opponent with a winning record until Game 6, an Oct. 20 date with Tampa Bay. While the Bucs can serve as a midseason measuring stick, it's not Tampa Bay that is the ' concern. Nor, for that matter, is it the NFC East. Philadelphia will win the division and should win it easily. That is not a problem. What the must do is win it so easily they gain home-field advantage through the playoffs. And don't look now, but of their 16 opponents only five had winning records last season. That's where Mitchell comes in. Philadelphia flirted with the idea of adding , figuring he could bring the experience to the wide receiver position that free-agent additions such as , and brought to theirs. OK, fine, but I'm not convinced Freeman would be all that happy as the third or fourth wideout, which is the role he'd serve if you promoted Mitchell and Pinkston. Plus, Freeman isn't the playmaker the need to catch St. Louis. Mitchell could be. As a rookie, he touched the ball only 24 times, yet he produced 17 first downs. That's what I'd call productivity, folks. "There's a time where the young guys have to grow up and play," Reid said. "But you've got to let them grow, and everyone knows that who deals with football. They've got to grow. They've got to step up. They've got to play." So let them play. I understand the deal with Mitchell. He's young. He's high-strung. And his playbook might as well be the size of the Astrodome. But he's tough. He's fearless. He's smart. He's confident. And he's talented. Man, is he talented. Not only did he set a UCLA record with 1,494 yards receiving in 2000, but his average of 19.3 yards a catch was second-best in the nation. "You know what I saw last year? Mental toughness," Reid said. "Even if he didn't do the right thing he was going to do it 100 miles an hour, and he was going to go get the football. You could knock him down, but he'd bounce back up and say, 'Hey, let's do it all over again.' It's hard to teach that." The don't bother. Instead, they school Mitchell on his position, hopeful that what he learns this summer he puts into play this fall. If the plan works, it could make a difference, and the timing couldn't be better. Now, more than ever, the need Mitchell. "As long as I stay within the offense, I'll make big things happen," Mitchell said. "But I'll let Coach Reid make the calls. If they need me to be the third receiver then I'm going to go in there and be the third receiver. It's all about winning the Super Bowl." Precisely. Senior writer Clark Judge can be reached at his e-mail address, cjudge@foxsports.com.
Tagged: Packers, Eagles, Dorsey Levens, Donovan McNabb, Freddie Mitchell, James Thrash, Duce Staley

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