THERE IS a pretty orderly life cycle for a good NFL player: make the team, begin to contribute, become a starter, begin to get noticed around the league. That is where Quintin Mikell is, at the getting-noticed stage.

In his first full season as the Eagles' starting strong safety, Mikell has quietly had a very, very good year. On a defense that has pretty much been rebuilt on the fly in the last couple of seasons, his development stands out.

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Strong safeties are not big-money guys or big-attention guys, but they are among the league's more versatile defensive laborers. At this point, people in the business have to be talking about Mikell as somebody to watch, if nothing else.

"I hope so," he said. "You always want to feel like what

you're doing is being noticed. I've had a pretty good season so far. My main thing is, I didn't want to be the weak link in this great secondary. I feel like I've done pretty well.

"Every week, guys that I know from other teams, they tell me, 'You're doing well out there . . . You're having a great season . . .' That does feel good."

Mikell was standing at his locker in Lincoln Financial Field early yesterday morning as he spoke. The Eagles' 30-10 win over the Cleveland Browns, their third straight, was done. The Pro Bowl announcement would come in about 16 hours.

Mikell didn't make it. For the Eagles, only Brian Dawkins and Asante Samuel did, as reserves. That Mikell was skipped over at strong safety in favor of Arizona's Adrian Wilson was not an injustice as much as it was part of the process. He's still so new.

Strong safety is not a big stat position, but there are some numbers: tackles, sacks, passes defensed (broken up), interceptions and forced fumbles. If you look at those numbers, and you look around the NFC, Mikell is a leader.

There are only a couple of guys on that list with a number in every column. Mikell is third in tackles among strong safeties, tied for first in forced fumbles, and no worse than second in any of the other categories. The variety of numbers for most of these guys suggests what the strong safety position has become - that is, not exactly interchangeable with the free safety but a lot more interchangeable than in the old days.

When you see guys who have no passes defensed or interceptions - like former Eagles safety Michael Lewis, now with the San Francisco 49ers - you see an old-time, big-hitting, can't-really-run safety. But the list overall suggests the new dimensions of the position. On most NFL teams anymore, a strong safety who can't run, well, he can't play.

Again, defensive numbers aren't everything - they're open to interpretation. For example, the Eagles publish their coaches' stats and list Mikell with a team-leading 152 tackles and four forced fumbles, double the official numbers.

For whatever it's worth, here's the NFC list:

PlayerTack.SackPDInt.FF

Milloy (Atl)860610

Bullocks (Det)830002

Lewis (SF)822001

Mikell (Eagles)822932

Payne (Chi)7611140

Harper (NO)740000

Wilson (Ari)672.5622

Grant (Sea)650920

Horton (Was)651830

Still, if the numbers on that list don't enter Mikell into the Pro Bowl calculus - somewhere, somehow - then there shouldn't be a Pro Bowl calculus. He has to be in the conversation. It isn't a glamour position, true enough, but people have to begin to start noticing, and that's true even if Mikell will be overshadowed for as long as Brian Dawkins, he of the Hall of Fame resume, is playing alongside.

Ask Andy Reid about this defense and he talks about Trent Cole to start with. But when it comes to young guys developing, he brings up middle linebacker Stewart Bradley and he brings up Mikell. Bradley has become a swaggering presence as he roams the earth, and you can see it happening.

As for Mikell, Reid said:

"I just think he's really one of the better safeties in the league right now . . . He is a ferocious player. He's smart. He's good against the run. He's good against the pass. [He] makes calls back there, adjustment calls. I really like the way he plays - and then he jumps in on special teams and does that."

And, to repeat: People in the NFL cannot help but notice, not anymore.

"Some of it seems like a 'name' thing and, being a first-year starter, I don't really have a big name," Mikell said, after the Monday night game. "I still feel good about my season, though.

"The Pro Bowl was an individual goal that I did set for myself. I even said it during training camp, that I want to get to the Super Bowl and, as a personal goal, I want to make the Pro Bowl. I don't know if I've done enough or not. We'll see. It would be nice."

Didn't happen. Doesn't matter.

Quintin Mikell is right where he needs to be. *

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