BETHLEHEM - Jeremy Maclin missed check-in last night at his first Eagles training camp. The first-round draft choice received neither the list of nearby attractions from the front desk nor the mint that Andy Reid left on his pillow. It is not the end of the world. It is not the beginning of the end of the world. Not yet.

But if he is not here by Thursday, for the first full-pads practice with the veterans, Maclin already will be swimming against the current. And if he does not have a contract signed within a few days after that, no matter how fast and talented a wide receiver he is, Maclin will be officially far from shore.

The negotiators are not commenting, other than agent Jim Steiner expressing hope for a quick resolution and saying, "The lines of communication are excellent." But Maclin's absence speaks for itself. This is more ominous than it should be, more than anyone on the outside anticipated.

Everything sounded fine a few days ago. A few weeks before that, a source close to Maclin told the Daily News that the reason Maclin picked his agents, Steiner and Ben Dogra, was because they are so good at getting their guys signed by the start of camp. The final piece of the Eagles' Happiness Tour was to be in place. The wide receiver who fell into their laps on draft day was to be prepared to contribute in a significant way, as DeSean Jackson had done last season.

The stakes are big for the kid, who doesn't want to start his career hopelessly behind. The stakes might be bigger for the club, whose offseason planning - so widely applauded - includes a real contribution from another player with field-stretching potential.

Yet we all wait.

"I think we're close in a couple areas," Reid said at a 5 p.m. press conference. "We need to get closer in a couple other areas."

Reid indirectly brought up the point that has to scare everybody - the fact that so few first-round draft choices have signed their contracts. There are only three so far, quarterbacks Matthew Stafford (No. 1, Detroit) and Mark Sanchez (No. 5, New York Jets), plus center Alex Mack (No. 21, Cleveland). In a business where signings tend to fall into slots, there are almost no benchmarks out there for the agents and the clubs.

Reid said, "I've been through enough of these. You don't know. The agents, obviously, are going to push it right to, as far as they can push it. Some of it is determined by who signed ahead of you and who signed behind you, and when their camps start. We've just got to see how the whole thing works out."

Here is a potential problem, if this slotting thing really matters. Denver, which took linebacker Robert Ayers at No. 18 - right before Maclin - doesn't open its camp until Thursday. Detroit, which took tight end Brandon Pettigrew at No. 20 - right after Maclin - doesn't open its camp until Friday.

Again, this isn't a crisis right now. And it isn't as if Maclin hasn't been working at it so far. He was one of the players who went to Arizona a couple of weeks ago and worked out with Donovan McNabb and others.

It is just that they are counting on him to contribute, and they know how hard it is for a rookie to contribute in this offense. Jackson did it last year but that past guarantees nothing about Maclin's future - oh, and Jackson didn't miss a second of camp.

"I would say that I know DeSean being here last year helped him," Reid said. "I think when he was given that opportunity to step in as a starter he was ready. I think these 3 [rookie] days give you a chance to narrow the learning process [compared to] those first 3 days of the veteran camp when you're also being asked to hit and you're in full uniform, and so on. You're not going through that whole thinking process quite as strenuously as you would if you're not here."

Later, Reid said, "As a receiver, you want to make sure you have a great relationship . . . with your quarterback. You want to be as much on the same page as you can. There's no secret how you do that - you work together."

With that, there is still time - less than a lot, more than some. Just recognize that the Eagles and Jeremy Maclin have begun a tricky journey here that nobody on the outside saw coming.

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