- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 28, 2004

Linebacker Kevin Mitchell wasn’t done when practice ended for his teammates yesterday. Accompanied by linebackers coach Dale Lindsey, Mitchell made his way over to a hill abutting one of the fields at Redskin Park. The 10-year veteran then performed a series of backpedals up the incline, trying to correct his footwork after an afternoon in which his plant foot kept slipping out from under him.

“He’s trying to teach me to stay low,” Mitchell said after a 10-minute session, gulping to get his breath as sweat poured off his bald head. “If I’m standing straight up, it means I’m going to tilt back [on the hill]. If I stay low, I’ll keep my chin over my toes.”

Mitchell’s more impressive feat the past two years has been simply keeping his chin up. After winning the starting middle linebacker’s job in 2001 and performing well for the Redskins’ 10th-ranked defense, Mitchell was quickly supplanted when the Redskins signed Jeremiah Trotter in the offseason.

Now one final, perhaps slim, opportunity has been bestowed on the 33-year-old Mitchell, a good year after any chance to be an NFL starter seemingly passed him by. The Redskins have told Trotter to seek a trade, with the odds that he eventually will be released, and as coach Joe Gibbs conducts his first minicamp, Mitchell once again is first-string.

“He’s in the mix,” assistant head coach for defense Gregg Williams said. “We’re rotating him in first, but we’re also rotating in [young players] Antonio Pierce, Lemar Marshall, Chris Clemons. All those guys will get their opportunity.

“Right now the depth charts don’t mean anything. We don’t know the guys. They don’t know us. We’re just trying to give everybody a fair chance — especially in this first minicamp here.”

Mitchell knows all too well that he can’t take anything for granted in this ever-acquisitive organization. By the time September arrives, a free agent might have been signed. And certainly he’ll be pushed by those young players — particularly Clifton Smith, who is sitting out team drills in this minicamp while rehabilitating from arthroscopic shoulder surgery.

“That’s why I’ve been trying to work [on the hill], because I’ve been slipping a lot,” Mitchell said. “I don’t want them to think I can’t move.”

Some would argue that Mitchell should have been the starter the past two years, that signing Trotter was a risky splurge at a position where the Redskins would have been better served by a dependable, if somewhat less talented, veteran. Former defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis has told associates that Washington’s defense improved in the final three games of 2002 when Trotter was injured and Mitchell filled in.

Even after Trotter and Jessie Armstead signed in 2002, LaVar Arrington shrugged off talk of having the NFL’s best linebacking corps and reiterated how well he, Mitchell and Shawn Barber played in 2001. Yesterday Arrington hinted that he hasn’t forgotten those days.

“I think Kevin Mitchell was, from Day One, more than able to be the starter and in some cases probably should have been the starter anyway,” Arrington said.

But Mitchell, a second-round pick by the San Francisco 49ers in 1994, seemingly was destined to be a perennial bridesmaid. The 2001 season was the second in which he finally earned a starting job — and, just like in 1998 with the New Orleans Saints, his stint was cut short by injury and his job was given away in the offseason.

After filling in for Trotter at the end of 2002, Mitchell searched briefly for a starting job the following spring before limited interest and the birth of his son made him choose the stability of re-signing for the minimum salary. By this offseason, it was pretty clear that any league-wide opportunities were history. He signed a one-year, minimum salary deal on free agency’s second day.

“[Being demoted] was frustrating for the first third of the [2002] season,” Mitchell said. “But as time went on, I swallowed my pride, and it got easier. … I know my body, and I know I can still play. I might not be what I was, but I can still get the job done.”

Williams and other Redskins coaches will judge that in coming months. Yesterday Williams expressed a willingness to play outside linebackers Marcus Washington and Arrington on the interior, at least at times, and emphasized that his linebackers must have speed — something Mitchell possesses in limited quantities these days.

Still, if even for a weekend, Mitchell is getting one last chance to prove he deserves a starting role.

“I approach this like I approach every year in the league: I’m a rookie trying to make the team,” Mitchell said. “I’m going to make the best of every opportunity I get on the field, study my plays and assume I’m a rookie again.”

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