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Camp Countdown: Tight End


He spent his offseason grunting and sweating, hauling around a curious object known as a Russian kettlebell, sort of a cannonball with a handle. A workout option of increasing popularity for mixed martial artists, it seemed more befitting of Ivan Drago than of a tight end.

It's all part of a plan to rehabilitate, to get back onto the field for 16 games and to set himself amongst the league's elite – in a contract year, nonetheless.

Don't worry about him. L.J. Smith still has that chip on his shoulder.

By the end of the 2007 season, Smith's list of bumps and bruises had mercifully stopped swelling. A sports hernia, knee, rib and groin injuries limited Smith to just 22 catches in 10 games, not precisely the production or durability that earns a multi-year megadeal from the oft-overlooked position.

But the Eagles still harvest hope in the 2003 second-round pick, and showed so by placing the franchise tag on Smith this offseason, granting him a one-year deal that is worth the average of the top-five tight end salaries in football.

Being that Smith believes he belongs with that company, he gladly accepted the offer.

"It gave me a new hunger for the sport of football," Smith said. "You definitely don't have a long time to make an impact in this game and I'm thankful that I'm back here. Now it's time to get back to work and show improvement."

When healthy, Smith's been much more than a safety valve for quarterback Donovan McNabb. He's a big-play threat with good speed from the position and a nose for the ball. Over the 2005 and 2006 seasons, he totaled 111 catches and eight touchdowns, better-than-average numbers from a tight end.

But the injuries haven't allowed head coach Andy Reid the type of security that someone of Smith's talent usually provides. Fortunately, Philadelphia has concentrated on securing depth at tight end, which came into play with a few surprises in 2007.

Rookie Brent Celek played in all 16 games, but floored the throttle during the final three. In those contests - all wins, he registered eight catches for 103 yards and a touchdown, showing the first-down explosiveness coveted from a tight end in the West Coast offense. Veteran Matt Schobel made six starts in Smith's absence but caught only 11 passes, a total that needs improvement if Smith were to miss similar time in 2008.

And never underestimating the need for more playmakers, the Eagles scooped up Kansas City H-back Kris Wilson in free agency, converting the fifth-year man from Pittsburgh back to his natural position.

Despite playing at an unfamiliar position, Wilson was still valued enough that Chiefs coaches made sure he found his way onto the field, which would have been a tough task behind sureshot Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez. As a combo H-back and fullback, Wilson hauled in 24 passes last season.

"I've always been a team guy. Whenever the coaches where like, 'Learn this position,' I learned it, I've done it and I've gotten on the field," Wilson said. "I've been asked to play tight end and it feels good to be back out there running down the field, mixing it up and making blocks on the line."

Now, there are four players competing for presumably three spots, the number of tight ends the Eagles carried on opening day in 2007.

But Smith, as always, is the guy to watch. He knows it. He considered his time off last season a growing experiment rather than a detriment.

Now, it's time to shine.

"I'm older and more mature," Smith said. "Last year, I had time to sit back and appreciate what I do for a living. ... (Now,) I'm getting myself mentally and physically prepared for a grueling camp, like it is every year."


The injuries to Smith stripped a vital cog in the Eagles' attack, and early on Celek and Schobel struggled to fill in. Still, Celek showed resilience and determination, taking huge strides for a fifth-round pick in a complicated scheme. The improvements should continue.

BATTLE TO WATCH: Wilson vs. Schobel for the third tight end spot.

The Eagles love Schobel's ability to stretch the field, but he's only put it into practice a few times during games. That's why Wilson was brought in – he's younger and boasts a similar explosiveness. Still, he's got to prove that he can cut it as a tight end in the NFL.

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