The Eagles have a decision to make about L.J. Smith, and they're running out of time to make it.
Smith's agent, Brian Mackler, has had contract talks with the Eagles over the last few seasons, including some discussions at the end of last season. The sides have never really come close to an agreement on what Smith is worth, and it appears as if the fifth-year tight end is going to enter into that thing known in professional sports as "the contract year."
"Obviously, it's very important, but . . . it's something you can't control as a player," Smith said yesterday as the Eagles continued their three-day minicamp at the NovaCare Complex. "It's pretty black and white. It's either they're going to pay you or they're not. You hope your agent can get it done, but sometimes it's even out of his hands. . . .
"I can show my talent to the world and the rest of the league, and whatever is supposed to happen will happen."
That's a healthy attitude for a player going into the last year of his contract, but it's not the approach that has always been taken around here. Smith, who returned to practice yesterday after missing Saturday's workouts because he was sick, has decided against following the same path traveled by some of his former teammates.
As a rookie, Smith watched running back Duce Staley and cornerback Bobby Taylor boycott voluntary minicamps in the spring. Staley extended his holdout into training camp.
Since then, Smith has watched wide receiver Terrell Owens, defensive tackle Corey Simon and running back Brian Westbrook all protest contract situations by staging minicamp boycotts, training-camp holdouts or both.
Westbrook was the only player from that list who received a contract extension from the Eagles. It's obvious that overt protests do not send management rushing to the negotiating table.
"The smart ones learn from other people's mistakes," said Smith, who turned 27 yesterday. "I'm under contract, so I'm going to play it out. I'm not one for all the controversy. I'm going to come in here and practice hard and play hard and try to help this team win a Super Bowl."
Smith, who will make $920,000 this season, may be among the most underrated tight ends in the league. In his second season as the Eagles' starter in 2006, he ranked 10th among NFL tight ends in catches (50), 12th in receiving yards (611) and was tied for seventh in touchdowns (five).
His receiving production declined after Donovan McNabb went down in the Eagles' 10th game against Tennessee, because the team started relying more on the running game. But Smith showed vast improvement in the blocking department during that stretch when the Eagles reeled off six straight wins, including a playoff victory over the New York Giants.
"I don't know how I'm rated on that tight-end chart," Smith said. "I know I'm not a secret around the league. I know I'm respected. I pray that, hopefully, things will work out here. This is a great football city, and everybody that plays here wants to play here. You don't hear people saying, 'I can't wait to get out of Philly.' They make it a great place to play while you're here."
Jason Witten, who was in the same draft class as Smith, signed a contract extension with the Dallas Cowboys last July that was worth $29 million over six years and included $12 million in bonus money.
Witten has been to three Pro Bowls and has 847 more career receiving yards than Smith, who was named a second alternate to the Pro Bowl last season. Smith has the same number of career touchdowns as Witten (14) and averages more yards per catch.
What's that worth to the Eagles?
Maybe it will all depend on what Smith does in the fifth and final year of the contract he signed after he was selected in the second round of the 2003 draft. Maybe it will depend on how Brent Celek, a fifth-round draft pick out of Cincinnati, performs during his rookie season.
Smith just wants to make sure that he has the kind of season that will leave people asking, "Why didn't they re-sign him?", if it doesn't happen.
"That's all you want," Smith said. "You want to put your best effort out on the field and have people respect it."