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.