Counting Down the Eagles’ Offseason Needs: No. 9, Tight End

Counting Down the Eagles’ Offseason Needs: No. 9, Tight End

Free agency is right around the corner, and the draft will be here before you know it. With the Philadelphia Eagles’ offseason in full swing, we’re examining where the roster stands at each position, counting down based on team need. Check out the first installment on running backs.

The Philadelphia Eagles could literally change nothing this offseason and they would still enter 2014 with the deepest, if not the best trio of tight ends in the NFL. What could possibly be of need here?

It’s not certain all three will be back.

CSNPhilly.com’s Geoff Mosher opened a can of worms last week when he suggested the Birds could cut ties with James Casey, the expensive third tight end whose playing time didn’t match the investment. Casey agreed to a three-year, $12 million free-agent contract last March, but wound up lining up on less than 20 percent of the offense’s snaps.

The word on Casey when he arrived from the Houston Texans was versatility. Philly.com’s Jimmy Kempski described the 29-year-old as a “Swiss army knife” who could move around the formation, block or run routes and contribute on special teams.

Two things happened.

First, Casey’s ability as a pass-catcher was greatly exaggerated. He once set an NCAA single-season record for tight ends with 111 receptions and 1,329 yards at Rice—the former still stands—but those historic numbers are more than his combined totals (69 REC, 783) after five years in the NFL. He simply is not a playmaker with the ball in his hands at this level.

Second, the Eagles selected Zach Ertz with the 35th-overall pick in the draft about a month later, which naturally ate into Casey’s playing time. Now the question is should the organization continue to pay roughly $4 million per season to somebody with such a small role in the offense?

The decision is a little more complicated than a simple “yes” or “no.” Mosher says $2 million of that is guaranteed, so that slashes the savings from Casey’s release in half—not to mention whatever the club pays a replacement.

Not only that, his playing time actually increased significantly as 2013 went along. Casey saw action on eight or fewer offensive snaps in all but two of Philadelphia’s first 11 games according to Pro Football Focus. Over the final six games however, the snap counts jumped to 11, 22, 6, 30, 28 and 11—the outlier being a shootout against Minnesota.

So Casey absolutely has a role in the offense, even if more is typically expected for that kind of money. Let’s not ignore his value as a reserve and on special teams, either.

If the Eagles stood to create real cap space, it might make sense to move on, but is the extra million or so in walking-around money worth dropping Casey for?

Ertz so good

I’m convinced Riley Cooper will not be an Eagle soon after free agency opens on March 11 due in large part to budgeting constraints. Assuming the club re-signs the infinitely more-talented Jeremy Maclin, they should have close to $20 million committed to Mac and DeSean Jackson in 2014 alone. How much can one team realistically spend on its wide receivers?

The other reason is Zach Ertz. As long as Ertz’s development continues into next season as anticipated, the increase in two-tight end sets will naturally lessen the need for three high-price receivers. In fact, the diminishing role of the slot receiver is already underway.

Jason Avant was ceding snaps to tight ends increasingly as the year went along. According to PFF’s snap-charting numbers, Avant was on the field for 70 percent or more in each of the Eagles’ first eight games. The same was true in only three of the final nine contests.

Ertz’s playing time rose accordingly, as did his production. In the month of December, the Stanford product posted 15 receptions for 195 yards and three touchdowns, by far his best stretch of the season.

That’s only scratching the surface. Ertz could be the next in the line of modern tight ends who can line up traditionally on the line of scrimmage, or split out wide or in the slot. When 6’5”, 249 pounds, 4.6 40 is standing outside the numbers, the defense has to cover him with a safety. It’s a matchup nightmare.

Ertz finished his rookie season with 36 receptions, 469 yards and four touchdowns. If he can make the leap in year two, he’s a potential 1,000-yard receiver.

Brent Celek isn’t going anywhere for awhile

It was genuinely surprising listening to fans and analysts last offseason suggest Brent Celek might be on the roster bubble or a cap casualty. It will not be surprising when the conversation inevitably comes up again in 2014, but it will be no less baffling.

The casual observer will view Celek’s production as the worst it’s been since he took over as the fulltime starter for Philadelphia in 2009 and take it as a sign the soon-to-be 29-year-old is in decline. That sentiment couldn’t be further from the truth.

True, Celek’s volume was down—32 receptions for 502 yards—but he made the targets he had count. His 15.7 yards per catch were 15th-highest in the NFL, second only to Vernon Davis among tight ends, indicating plenty of big plays were made when the opportunity presented itself. Celek’s six touchdowns were also two short of a career high.

Furthermore, looking purely at statistics ignores where Celek’s greatest impact was felt—in the running game.

According to metrics site Pro Football Focus, Celek graded out as the No. 1 run-blocking tight end in the NFL this year among players who were in for at least 50 percent of offensive snaps. Even if were to account for all tight ends, including blocking specialists, Celek’s cumulative score ranked third.

Celek has become so adept at blocking, Chip Kelly refers to him like he’s the sixth member of the offensive line.

71, 65, 62, 79, 69, 87. We've got some guys that can block, and we've got a very, very talented running back. .…  This whole deal is a personnel‑driven thing, and we've got some really talented guys on the offensive line. We've got a really talented tight end when it comes to blocking.

Celek is set to make $4 million next season, which actually is a reduction from his cap hit in 2013. That number grows to $4.8 million in ’15 and $5M in the final year, which aren’t bad numbers as long as he continues to play at his current level.

Previously: No. 10, Running Back

NHL Playoffs: Predators down Ducks to reach 1st Stanley Cup Final

NHL Playoffs: Predators down Ducks to reach 1st Stanley Cup Final

BOX SCORE

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Colton Sissons scored his third goal with 6:00 left, ensuring the Nashville Predators' magical postseason now includes the franchise's first trip to the Stanley Cup Final after eliminating the Anaheim Ducks with a 6-3 win in Game 6 on Monday night.

The Predators, who've never won even a division title in their 19-year history, came in with the fewest points of any team in these playoffs.

Now they've swept the West's No. 1 seed in Chicago, downed St. Louis in six in the second round and then the Pacific Division champ in six games. Peter Laviolette became the fourth coach to take three different teams to the Final, and the first since the playoffs split into conference play in 1994.

"It feels so good," Sissons said. "Listen to this crowd. Our fans are amazing, a great group of guys. We just believe in ourselves. That's all it is."

The Predators will play either defending champion Pittsburgh or Ottawa for the Stanley Cup. Game 1 is Monday.

Anaheim lost in the conference finals for the second time in three years.

Cam Fowler tied it up at 3-3 at 8:52 of the third for Anaheim as the Ducks tried to rally for the fifth time this season when trailing by multiple goals.

But Sissons, who scored on the third shot of the game, scored twice in a wild third period to give the Predators a 3-2 lead at 3:00 and then 4-3 three minutes later.

Austin Watson scored on Nashville's first shot and had an empty-netter with 1:34 to go. Filip Forsberg also had an empty-net goal.

Pekka Rinne made 38 saves to improve to 12-4.

Ondrej Kase scored his second career goal -- both in this series -- giving Anaheim a chance to tie the NHL record with a fifth rally when trailing by multiple goals. Chris Wagner banked the puck off Rinne's head for a goal at 5:00 of the third to keep the Ducks close.

But this has been the best postseason ever for Rinne, a three-time Vezina Trophy finalist, a stretch ranking among the NHL's best. And the 6-foot-5 Finn used his big body to turn away shot after shot even with the Ducks trying to crash the net every opportunity. He helped the Predators improve to 7-3 in one-goal games.

Music City buzzed all day leading up to the puck drop waiting for one of the biggest sports parties this town has ever seen.

Superstar Garth Brooks spoiled the usual mystery of who would sing the national anthem with Twitter hints hours before the game. Sure enough, his wife Trisha Yearwood became the latest to handle the honors. Former Tennessee Titans running back Eddie George waved the rally towel to crank up the fans.

That didn't even include the throngs packing the plaza outside the arena's front doors and the park across the street.

The Ducks, who came in 2-1 when facing elimination this postseason, outshot Nashville 6-2 to start the game trying to force this series back to Anaheim.

But they had goalie Jonathan Bernier making his first career playoff start with John Gibson scratched with a lower-body injury. Gibson, who went out after the first period of Game 5, skated Monday morning only to be scratched with Jhonas Enroth dressed as Bernier's backup.

Watson's third this postseason deflected off the left skate of Anaheim defenseman Brandon Montour just 81 seconds into the game. Sissons skated on the top line with Ryan Johansen out after needing season-ending surgery on his left thigh and captain Mike Fisher scratched for a second straight game with an upper-body injury.

Notes
Laviolette won the Stanley Cup with Carolina in 2006 and coached Philadelphia to the Final in 2010. ... The Predators now have clinched five of the six series won in franchise history on home ice. This was their third this postseason.

Best of MLB: Twins pound out 21 hits, storm back to beat Orioles

Best of MLB: Twins pound out 21 hits, storm back to beat Orioles

BALTIMORE -- Max Kepler homered and drove in four runs, Miguel Sano and Jorge Polanco each had a career-high four hits and the Minnesota Twins roared back to beat the Baltimore Orioles 14-7 Monday night.

Minnesota trailed 5-0 in the second inning and 6-2 entering the fifth before cranking up the offense against Ubaldo Jimenez and an ineffective Baltimore bullpen.

A two-run double by Kepler helped the Twins knot the score in the fifth, Minnesota sent 11 batters to the plate in a six-run sixth and Sano added a two-run homer in the ninth.

Joe Mauer had three hits, two RBIs and scored twice for the Twins, who reached season highs in runs and hits (21).

Adam Jones hit a three-run drive in the second inning off Kyle Gibson (1-4) for Baltimore (see full recap).

Peacock, Astros 1-hit Tigers
HOUSTON -- Brad Peacock and three relievers combined for a one-hitter and Jose Altuve provided the offense with an RBI double to lead the Houston Astros to 1-0 win over the Detroit Tigers on Monday night.

Peacock was solid moving out of the bullpen to make a spot start for injured ace Dallas Keuchel. In his first start since September, Peacock allowed the lone hit and struck out eight in 4 1/3 innings. He was lifted after walking Tyler Collins with one out in the fifth inning.

Chris Devenski (3-2) took over and pitched 2 2/3 innings for the win before Will Harris pitched a scoreless eighth. Ken Giles struck out two in the ninth for his 12th save to allow the Astros to bounce back after being swept by the Indians over the weekend.

Detroit's only hit was a single by Mikie Mahtook with one out in the third on a night the Tigers tied a season high by striking out 14 times. The team's only baserunner after Collins was Victor Martinez, who was plunked with one out in the seventh. But Houston still faced the minimum in that inning when J.D. Martinez grounded into a double play to end the seventh.

The Astros struck early against Michael Fulmer (5-2) when George Springer drew a leadoff walk before scoring on the double by Altuve to make it 1-0 with one out in the first (see full recap).

Homers help Yankees top Royals
NEW YORK -- Didi Gregorius, Brett Gardner and Chris Carter homered, and the New York Yankees once again downed Jason Vargas by beating the Kansas City Royals 4-2 Monday night.

A reversed umpire's call in the seventh inning kept the Yankees ahead and enabled Michael Pineda (5-2) to top Vargas for the second time in a week. The Royals, with the worst record in the AL, have lost five of seven.

Vargas (5-3) began the day with a 2.03 ERA, tied for second-best in the majors. But the lefty fell to 0-7 lifetime against the Yankees when he was tagged by Gardner and Gregorius, the only left-handed hitters in the New York lineup (see full recap).