With holdout running back Duce Staley nowhere in sight, return specialist Brian Mitchell encamped with the Giants in Albany, N.Y., and tackle-sized middle linebacker Levon Kirkland no longer in the equation, Philadelphia Eagles coaches are paying particular attention to three players in training camp at Lehigh University.
Running back Correll Buckhalter missed last season because of a knee injury and surgery, but is the No. 1 feature back with Staley AWOL.
''We're keeping a close eye on him,'' Eagles coach Andy Reid said. ''Is he lagging behind or holding back? Is he going to jeopardize himself with an injury? He looks like he's exploding through tackles and he's keeping his pad level down and he's doing a nice job.''
Brian Westbrook, the second-year all-purpose back out of Villanova, appears solid on kickoff returns but has bobbled/dropped some punts.
''He's beat up at the end of practice and he has to get used to that,'' Reid said in noting the botched catches have occurred mostly after 90+ minutes in the heat and humidity. ''You've got to concentrate then even a little more. You see him in the pre-practice part of things and he catches everything. But he's got to get used to doing that when he's exhausted back there.''
Middle linebacker Mark Simoneau, who at 6-3, 234 pounds, is six pounds lighter than quarterback Donovan McNabb and about two-thirds the weight of his predecessor at middle linebacker, Kirkland.
''With Mark, we know he's not as big , but he's athletic and quick,'' Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson said. ''Can he handle the run? We'll see in the preseason . But I like how he has played in our goal line defense .''
That's enough: Reid ended the Eagles' Monday morning practice session about 25 minutes earlier than usual as a reward for some hard hitting, and because of weather-related concerns.
''I thought it was a good practice,'' Reid said. ''We cut some periods so we could maximize the intensity during the hitting portion of the practice. It's been a very intense hitting camp the last few days and that's a good thing.
''It was a combination of that and the weather. The fields are a little bit sloppy.''
Exhibit A: Donovan McNabb continued his defense of Freddie Mitchell, and nobody even asked him.
Instead, a question about Todd Pinkston's emergence as a receiver led McNabb to talk about Mitchell, using Pinkston as an example of somebody who started their career slowly (10 catches as a rookie in 2000) only to blossom later (42 catches in 2001, 60 in 2002).
''When Todd came in everyone pretty much used him as their joke,'' McNabb said. ''They talked about his size and how maybe he was too thin to be in this offense. 'He's not panning out well.' It sort of reminds me of the way you guys are doing Freddie .''
Today in camp: Workouts are scheduled for 8:45 a.m. and 2:45 p.m. Quarterbacks, tight ends, kickers and punters are scheduled for the autograph tent following the morning session. Fans are encouraged to call the Eagles' information line (610-758-6868) daily to confirm practice times and public access.
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