Brown ready to be No. 1 target

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- Call him an overachiever. Talk about Reggie Brown's often overblown sense of humor, gleaned from the silly pranks his father frequently conjured up to help him get through treatments for a brain tumor, or note the overtime that the Philadelphia Eagles receiver logs after nearly every practice as he works tirelessly to enhance his skills.

Just don't ever suggest the "O" word most frequently associated with the initiation of young receivers into the Andy Reid-designed offense -- overwhelmed -- when discussing Brown's 2005 rookie season.

Those three syllables, at least arranged in that particular order, simply aren't in his vocabulary.

"Overwhelmed?" said the good-natured Brown, feigning shock at the mere mention of the word, after Tuesday morning's first full-contact practice of training camp. "No, never, not overwhelmed. I mean, there were times when my head was spinning, or when I was maybe uncertain about something. I was probably confused sometimes, you know? But overwhelmed? Oh, my, no way."

Not many young Eagles wide receivers in recent years could offer such a self-assured evaluation. In fact, before Brown, none could. At least none selected during the Reid era.

A second-round draft choice from the University of Georgia in 2005, Brown's rookie numbers -- 43 receptions for 571 yards and four touchdowns -- were more modest than meteoric. But the catches were the most in franchise history by a rookie wide receiver and Brown led all NFL first-year players in receiving yards, had the second-most catches and the third-most touchdowns. Brown was the first Eagles rookie to post two touchdown catches in a game since 1990.

That says a lot about the suspect quality of the prospects the Eagles have been plucking from the college ranks every spring. But hopefully, it says even more about Brown.

As evidenced by the fact that there have been 117 receivers selected in the first round since 1970, and only eight of them had 1,000-yard seasons as rookies, it is difficult for any pass catcher to make an immediate impact in the NFL. But in the Reid offense, it has been virtually impossible.

Over the first six drafts of Reid's tenure with the team (1999-2004), the Eagles selected seven wide receivers. Their aggregate first-year production: 51 catches for 668 yards and two touchdowns. Only two members of the group -- Na Brown in 1999 and the loquacious Freddie Mitchell in 2001 -- snagged more than 10 passes as rookies. None had even 300 receiving yards as rookies. Two caught one pass each and two more had zero receptions in their debut campaigns. Of the seven, just one, Todd Pinkston, a second-round pick in the 2000 draft, is still in the Eagles' employ.

Chew on those paltry numbers for a few minutes and Brown's statistics of a year ago, as ordinary as they may seem, become a little more impressive.

"But the thing is," offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg emphasized, "we need more this year."

Do they ever.

The exit of Terrell Owens has transformed the Eagles' summer venue, at bucolic Lehigh University, into Camp Tranquil, an atmosphere befitting the lush and hilly terrain of the area. But it has also left the club without a proven No. 1 receiver. Consider this: Even though Owens played in just seven games in 2005, less than half a season, he still finished just one reception behind Greg Lewis for the most catches by a wide receiver. And Owens' 763 yards and six touchdowns were team highs.

Take away Owens' six scores and the Philadelphia wide receivers got into the end zone only six times. For an offense that throws the ball as much as the Eagles do -- under Reid, 58.5 percent of the offensive snaps since 1999 were pass plays and last season the quota was a lopsided 64.4 percent -- that isn't much of a dividend. Not surprisingly, there are some scouts around the league who don't think very much of the remnant Philadelphia wide receiver corps, and they rate Brown as just a No. 2 wideout forced into the lead role because the Eagles don't have anyone better than him on the roster.

Such talk hardly ruffles the imperturbable Brown, who has enthusiastically embraced the mantle.

"They've put [the No. 1 label] on me and I'm happy to have it," said Brown, who at times wasn't even the lead receiver on his college team. "They don't seem to have a problem with it, so why should I? If they felt like someone else [here] was the top guy, then it would be him. If they felt like there was someone better that they could go get, they'd probably go and get him, because that's the nature of his business. But I feel like it's my place on this team … and I'm definitely ready for it."

Skeptics have noted it is a role ceded to Brown by default as much as by deed, but neither he nor Eagles coaches agree with that analysis. Still, no matter how much Brown seems to have grown in his second year with the club -- and he definitely looks bigger through the shoulders and upper body, seems to carry himself a little taller than he did a season ago, and exudes notably more confidence now -- it's tough to shake the suspicion that the Eagles' wide receiver corps is a thin one.

Fact is, doubts about the Philadelphia receivers, outside of emerging tight end L.J. Smith, even supersede any questions about the health of the guy throwing the football, quarterback Donovan McNabb. And until the Eagles' receivers prove themselves, the doubts about the wideouts are legitimate.

Lewis is a capable No. 2 or No. 3 receiver and wouldn't be a starter on most teams. Veteran Jabar Gaffney, signed as an unrestricted free agent after four seasons in Houston, is a better receiver than a lot of people think, but appears to be best-suited to the slot role. Pinkston, who has a healthy career average of 15.3 yards per catch and who has flashed deep-play skills at times in his career, is rehabilitating from a ruptured right Achilles tendon that sidelined him the entire '05 season. He's missed the first few days of camp, inexplicably, because of tendinitis in his left Achilles. Even though he isn't especially quick, the coaches like fourth-round draft choice Jason Avant, but the former University of Michigan standout is on the physically unable to perform list, recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery. Fifth-rounder Jeremy Bloom, the former Olympics freestyle skier, has a balky hamstring.

There are whispers that the Eagles might be interested in making a trade to acquire Denver malcontent Ashley Lelie, who skipped the Broncos' entire offseason program. But after the Owens fiasco, the once-burnt-twice-shy philosophy might prevail here when it comes to taking on another team's problem child.

Which pretty much leaves Brown the No. 1 option at wide receiver. And which, for now at least, seems pretty much OK with Brown and the coaching staff.

"They've put [the No. 1 label] on me and I'm happy to have it.They don't seem to have a problem with it, so why should I? If they felt like someone else [here] was the top guy, then it would be him. If they felt like there was someone better that they could go get, they'd probably go and get him, because that's the nature of his business. But I feel like it's my place on this team … and I'm definitely read for it."
Reggie Brown, Eagles WR

"You like to feel like you've earned it, but let's face it, there are some [extenuating] circumstances here," Brown acknowledged. "But am I confident that, no matter what those circumstances are, I can be the guy? Yeah, definitely, I am. And I think the more obvious it became that this was going to be my role, then the harder I worked to show people I deserve it."

According to Reid, it's no small feat for Brown to work even harder than he did a year ago.

"He'll work as hard or harder than anybody on this team at what he does," Reid said. "He's hard to tire out, man. He'll keep going. When [Tampa Bay coach] Jon Gruden had him in the Senior Bowl [in the spring of 2005], that was the thing he told me: 'You can't wear this guy out, he keeps rolling.' And that's how he is. He just pushes, pushes and pushes every play."

In the Reid offense, however, work ethic and physical tools aren't enough to suggest success. Mitchell, a first-round pick in 2001 who never played up to that level and eventually talked his way off the team, used to chafe incessantly over the difficulty in assimilating the offense. Even Owens conceded there were times when he relied on his extemporaneous skills because he forgot a route assignment. Brown seems to have a feel for the offense but, almost as important, a feel for the game in general.

"He's quicker than people think," Mornhinweg said. "And he's smart, and he works as hard as anyone out here. But I think what makes him a good receiver, and will make him even better as he matures in the NFL, is his gut instinct. He's just got a sense for how the game is developing from play to play, how he fits into things, where he can make play. You really saw that developing at the end of last year."

Indeed, while Brown had two catches or fewer in four of his 11 starts, and less than 30 receiving yards in six of them, he also posted four outings with 70-plus yards. In the final month of the Eagles' otherwise dismal season, Brown was a bright spot, averaging five catches for 60 yards in a four-game stretch. In the season finale against Washington, he had seven catches for 77 yards and two touchdowns, and he wants to build on that performance.

The Eagles need him to build as if he was erecting a prefabricated house. And Brown knows it.

"Oh, sure, I feel a lot different coming in here this year," he said. "Part of that is natural, because I know where everything is now, I know the offense so much better, and I'm beyond that awkward, sort of guessing stage, where you just hope you're doing things right. People look at me a little different now, and the expectations are so much greater, and that's fine with me.

"I mean," Brown said, laughing, "I'm not overwhelmed by it, you know?"

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.