Eagles have off-field issues to start camp

July 21, 2008 7:41:49 PM PDT
Contract disputes and soap opera story lines in the middle of summer mean it's time for training camp. The Philadelphia Eagles opened camp Monday when rookies and some veteran players reported to Lehigh University. They'll take the field Tuesday morning and the first full-squad practice in pads is Saturday.

Will Lito Sheppard be there? How about Brian Westbrook? Is Donovan McNabb healthy?

It wouldn't be the Eagles without a little drama.

Sheppard, the two-time Pro Bowl cornerback, landed on the trading block in the offseason because he's unhappy with his contract. The addition of All-Pro cornerback Asante Samuel made Sheppard expendable, but the Eagles couldn't find a suitable trading partner.

Sheppard attended a mandatory minicamp in May, but skipped voluntary workouts. He recently fired his agent and hired Drew Rosenhaus, who represented Terrell Owens when the mercurial receiver famously feuded with Eagles management three years ago and was kicked off the team.

But coach Andy Reid doesn't expect a similar problem.

"Lito seems to be in a good place right now, Drew seems to be in a good place about the situation, so I think Lito will come in here and have a great year," Reid said.

Since failing to deal Sheppard, the Eagles have insisted they'll find a way to use him with Samuel and Sheldon Brown. On paper, that could be the best cornerback trio in the NFL.

Samuel got a $57.14 million, six-year deal and was handed Sheppard's starting left cornerback spot, so that leaves Sheppard and Brown to compete for the starting spot on the right side. If Sheppard doesn't hold out - he's due to report with the rest of the veterans on Thursday - it'll be interesting to see who lines up with the first team on Saturday.

"I haven't talked to Lito, but he will be here," said Reid, who enters his 10th season in Philadelphia. "I will meet with Lito once he is here."

Westbrook, who also wants a new contract, may be a more likely holdout candidate than Sheppard because he did it in 2005 and has more leverage. Westbrook recently fired his agent, too. The two-time Pro Bowl running back signed a $25 million, five-year contract extension in '05, but strongly believes he's worth more now.

"Brian is obviously one of the leaders of the football team, so I would expect that he would be here," Reid said.

Westbrook had a career-best 1,333 yards rushing and led the NFL with 2,104 total yards last season. But he'll turn 29 before the season opener and the Eagles are reluctant to give him $30 million guaranteed, like he wants.

Without Westbrook, the Eagles don't have a chance in the NFC East. He could try to force a better deal by holding out. However, the stubborn Eagles don't cave in when a player demands more money. Just ask T.O.

McNabb's situation is different, though he wouldn't mind a new contract. The oft-injured, five-time Pro Bowl quarterback was held to a "pitch count" during minicamps and eventually got shut down because of shoulder tendinitis. He rehabbed and resumed throwing, so he should be ready to go.

Given the nature of Philly fans, this could be a lingering problem. The first time McNabb underthrows a receiver or misfires to an open target, many will question his health. McNabb already heard people calling for Kevin Kolb to replace him last year, and he'll hear it again if he struggles.

If McNabb is healthy and picks up where he left off late last season and the off-field issues are resolved, the Eagles should be a playoff contender. Despite finishing in last place twice in the past three seasons, the Eagles haven't shifted to a rebuilding mode.

They aggressively pursued free agents, signing Samuel and defensive end Chris Clemons to bolster the defense. A draft-day trade for running back Lorenzo Booker improves the depth in the backfield and provides insurance should Westbrook get hurt. Rookie wide receiver DeSean Jackson could make an immediate impact on special teams, and may end up contributing on offense.

Of course, simply making the playoffs won't cut it in championship-starved Philadelphia. The Eagles have to win the Super Bowl to satisfy their fans.

Notes: Defensive tackle Trevor Laws, the Eagles' first overall pick in the second round of the draft and the 47th overall pick, agreed to a four-year contract. That means all the team's rookies are signed.