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

Flyers skate update: Matt Read's 400th game; Andrew MacDonald scratched

Flyers skate update: Matt Read's 400th game; Andrew MacDonald scratched

VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Matt Read did not have to worry about being an NHL draft bust.

He did not impress scouts enough to be drafted at all while playing collegiate hockey at Bemidji State in Minnesota. Instead, the Flyers' winger had to make the NHL the hard way — as a free agent.

“Out of college, I signed with the Flyers and was just doing everything I could to get an opportunity to make the team,” Read, 30, recalled after the team’s morning skate before the Flyers take on the Vancouver Canucks.

His hard work and determination were rewarded here as he drew into the Flyers lineup for his 400th NHL career game.

“If you told me as a 12-year-old self I was playing 400 games in the NHL, I’d be pretty happy, obviously,” Read said. “I don’t have enough words to describe (what the accomplishment means.) Every day in the NHL is a blessing, I guess. You show up every day, work hard and have fun. As a kid, I wanted to be a professional hockey player, and I get to live it out everyday, which is amazing.”

Read originally signed as a free agent with the Flyers in 2011. Unlike many other NHLers, he has played his entire career with the same organization.

“The opportunity to play for the same team for six years is almost unheard of in the National Hockey League these days, so (I) take advantage of it and enjoy it,” Read said.

What has enabled him to stick?

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m just showing up at the rink every day to work hard, have fun, be a team guy and do as much as I can to make this team better.”

Flyers coach Dave Hakstol said he has a “solid level of trust” in Read.

“There’s a lot of different pathways towards the NHL,” Hakstol said. “I think what you see in that guys that are able to hit a milestone like 400 is, there’s a level of dedication and consistency in terms of work habits to get there. Obviously, Matt has demonstrated those. It’s a hell of a milestone. (But) probably first and foremost on his mind, I would think, tonight is playing a good hockey game and helping our team.”

MacDonald gets night off
Flyers defenseman Andrew MacDonald received the night off as Hakstol made him a healthy scratch. The move was somewhat surprising, because MacDonald has played every game since he was scratched Nov. 19 against Tampa Bay.

Hakstol said MacDonald needed a rest. As a result, Brandon Manning was shifted to the right side from the left and paired with Ivan Provorov.

According to the coach, Manning has not had trouble switching sides this season.

“He’s done a pretty good job,” Hakstol said. “If you look at it, particularly this year, he’s been pretty efficient in making that transition. Is it easy? No.”

Neuvy gets the nod again
Hakstol did not think goaltender Michal Neuvirth needed a rest. He got the nod for his fourth straight start and sixth in the last seven games overall.

“He’s been the guy that’s been in a rhythm for us and he’s done a pretty good job and he’ll go back tonight,” Hakstol said.

Neuvirth was not complaining about the heavy workload.

“It’s good to be playing,” Neuvirth said. “The more I play, the more comfortable I feel. It’s been good.”

He also prepared to be comfortable with the risk of added fatigue.

“It is what it is — you’ve gotta be ready anytime, any day,” Neuvirth said. “It’s a good opportunity for me and it’s gonna be a good challenge.”

Former Flyers coach enshrined
Late former Flyers coach Pat Quinn has been honored with a life-sized statue outside the home of the Canucks. The monument, funded by a group of Quinn’s friends and business partners, was unveiled over the weekend.

Quinn began his coaching career with the Flyers in 1977-78 before holding coaching and managing positions with the AHL Phantoms and four other NHL clubs, including the Canucks. He guided the Flyers to a 35-game unbeaten streak — a record for North American sports — in 1979-80, when they reached the Stanley Cup finals.

Loose pucks
• The Flyers’ .667 winning percentage in Vancouver ranks as their best in any current NHL city. 

• Despite outshooting their opponents in 15 of 20 games dating to Jan. 1, the Flyers are 5-8-2 in the 15 contests.

Scratches: Defensemen Andrew MacDonald and Nick Schultz

Lineup
F: Schenn-Giroux-Simmonds

Weise-Couturier-Voracek

Raffl-Cousins-Read

VandeVelde-Bellemare-Lyubimov

D: Provorov-Manning

Gostisbehere-Streit

Del  Zotto-Gudas

G: Neuvirth

Phillies prospect Andrew Knapp is determined to win a job in the majors

Phillies prospect Andrew Knapp is determined to win a job in the majors

CLEARWATER, Fla. — The dew on the infield grass had barely dried when Andrew Knapp was marched out to the firing squad at Phillies camp early Sunday morning.
 
He took his position at first base and looked across the diamond where Phillies instructors Doug Mansolino, Chris Truby and Larry Bowa were lined up at third base, shortstop and second base, respectively. Armed with fungo bats and a dozens baseballs each, the trio of sharpshooters proceeded to smash bullet one- and two-hoppers at Knapp, who was tasked with pulling them out of the dirt to complete the putout.
 
“Good job,” shouted Bowa, a tough grader when it comes to infield work, as Knapp finished up the hellacious early-morning drill.
 
Knapp is a catcher by trade, but he will continue these intense individual sessions at first base throughout the spring — in addition to his regular defensive work behind the plate.
 
A 25-year-old switch-hitter, Knapp was the Phillies’ second-round selection in the 2013 draft. He’s getting a lot attention in this camp because he has a shot to make the club as a reserve player. The Phils are in need of a backup catcher and a backup first baseman and Knapp, in big-league camp for the second time, is trying to show he can handle both assignments in one package.
 
“Last year it was more of a happy-to-be-here thing,” he said. “I was just trying to pick as many brains as I could and take in as much knowledge as I could.
 
“But this year it’s more of a let’s-go-win-a-job kind of deal.”
 
General manager Matt Klentak and manager Pete Mackanin first floated the idea of carrying Knapp as a two-position reserve at the winter meetings.
 
Of course, it came with a lot of qualifiers. Knapp is still considered a developing player and team decision-makers would have to consider what impact a reserve role would have on his development. Also, the prototypical backup catcher in the majors is a plus defender who has experience handling a big-league pitching staff. Knapp has never played in the majors and his defense is considered a work in progress. Later in the winter, the Phillies signed two big-league veteran catchers (Bryan Holaday and Ryan Hanigan) to minor-league deals and they are very much in the mix for the job.
 
“I kind of understand there’s a definite value in having a veteran guy as a backup, but I think I can do the job on the field,” Knapp said.
 
A potential separator for Knapp could be his bat and his versatility if he can continue to develop it. He is not a novice at first base. He played there as a sophomore at the University of California. Knapp also has this going for him: He’s on the 40-man roster and with so many young prospects on it and the probable need to add an outfielder like Chris Coughlan later in camp, that could work in Knapp’s favor.
 
Another factor that could held Knapp’s chances: The Phillies’ development blueprint calls for Rhys Hoskins and Jorge Alfaro to get the bulk of the playing time at first base and catcher, respectively, at Triple A.
 
“You’d like to see him get 500 at-bats, but it’s not a perfect world,” Bowa said. “Our Triple A team is loaded. He might find himself in the same role at Triple A. if that’s the case, it might be best if he came here if he swings the bat like he can and he can provide versatility.
 
“A guy like him can give you some options and flexibility. When you face the Mets and they have three stud right-handers throwing 95, it might be nice to have a guy like that to give (first baseman) Tommy Joseph a blow.”
 
Knapp had a brilliant season with the bat at Double A in 2015. He hit .360 with 11 homers, 56 RBIs and a 1.050 OPS in 55 games, earning him the franchise’s Paul Owens Award as minor-league player of the year.
 
Knapp tapered off at Triple A last season. He hit .266 with eight homers, 46 RBIs and a .719 OPS over a full season. Knapp’s day last summer typically started with defensive work at 1:30 in the afternoon.
 
“I would get my hitting in, but I don’t think there was as much of a focus on it as there was the year before,” he said. “I do think last year I took a real step forward defensively, especially in the second half of the year. I kind of had a tough first half, but the second half I really honed in on the defensive part, blocking and throwing mostly, just kind of keeping everything in front and shutting down the running game.”

A lot of eyes will be on Knapp when the exhibition games start next week.
 
“We need to find out if he’s capable of doing it,” Mackanin said. “Catching is a defensive-oriented position. We need good defense. We need good game calling, a catcher who can handle pitchers, and that’s what we’re going to be looking at from a guy like Knapp as well as the other guys. We’re going to take a good long look at that.
 
“He’s definitely in the mix. I want to play him a lot to see him. We all want to see what he can do offensively and defensively. From what I’ve been told he’s shown a lot of improvement and we’re going to look for that. We’re looking for the 25 best men. There’s a good chance he might be one of them.”
 
Knapp is determined to show that he is.
 
“It’s open for someone to go take it and I want to be that guy,” he said.