Five Tough Questions for Eagles Training Camp: Tight End

Five Tough Questions for Eagles Training Camp: Tight End

We continue our training camp preview by breaking down the Eagles at the tight end position, which figures to be a much more prominent part of the offense under Chip Kelly.

[ Five Tough Questions for Eagles Training Camp:
Quarterback | Running Back | Wide Receiver | Offensive Line
Defensive Line | Linebackers | Cornerback | Safety ]

Is Brent Celek being phased out of the Eagles’ offense?

Not yet he isn’t. Initially things weren’t looking so great for Celek after the Eagles went out and signed free agent James Casey and drafted Zach Ertz in the second round (No. 35 overall), but there should be more than enough snaps to go around.

He might not be on the field for 75% of the plays like he used to under Andy Reid, however Celek still possesses plenty of value. He brings a slightly different skill set to the party than the other two – more proven as a vertical threat than Casey, who recorded a career high with 330 yards receiving last season, not to mention Celek is a capable blocker unlike Ertz, who is described as needing work in that aspect of his game.

It’s not like Celek is old – he’s 28, and Casey is actually older by eight months – plus while his contract allows the team to dump him after this season, his 2014 salary of $4 million is not an excessive figure for a player who’s averaged 59 catches, 744 yards, and 4.5 touchdowns over the past four seasons. Those aren’t quite Pro-Bowl numbers, but they’re certainly solid.

They’re also far better than what Casey or Ertz have ever produced in the NFL. With tight end becoming a focal point in the Eagles’ offense, Chip Kelly may eventually want an upgrade over Celek, but it’s not like decent receiving tight ends that can also block a little bit grow on trees. Expect him to thrive for at least another season or two, and don’t be surprised if he’s here longer.

Exactly what does James Casey bring to the table?

A little bit of everything. To the casual observer with a tendency to focus on statistics, Casey would not appear to be a very major signing at all. He recorded new personal bests with 34 receptions, 330 yards, and three touchdowns on the Houston Texans last season, which are essentially replacement-level totals.

Casey, who signed for three years/$12 million, figures to be featured more prominently in Chip Kelly’s scheme, although he won’t necessarily shatter those career numbers. Jimmy Kempski of Blogging the Beast once called him a Swiss army knife H-back. He has the size (6-3, 240) and athleticism to run a route and haul in a pass, but he can move around the formation and block on the line of scrimmage or in the backfield. He can be a lead blocker in the running game, or even take a handoff himself.

A fifth-round pick in ’09, Casey isn’t suddenly going to break the mold. He may never get the accolades or the trips to Honolulu. This is a gritty player though, one who will perform many different duties at an adequate-to-above-average capacity. The Eagles needed more players who were willing to do the dirty work, and it appears they found a good one in Casey.

What should we expect from Zach Ertz in his rookie season?

Don’t go overboard. If all goes according to plan, Ertz could eventually develop into one of the most dangerous weapons on the team, but there is reason to believe he could be brought along slowly as a rookie.

For one, as was already touched on, Ertz isn’t supposed to be much of a blocker. That’s no small detail, as blocking is typically a fairly large part of the job description for most tight ends. Guys can get away with being more receiver-inclined when they’re putting up big numbers, but Ertz is starting from the bottom, so he’ll likely have to improve that aspect of his game to earn the trust of the coaching staff.

There’s also no rush to get the Stanford product on the field. Celek is a fine tight end, and Casey’s role will be a little more unique. Add in the fact that Ertz may have fallen a little behind after missing some of the Birds’ offseason programs (by NFL rule), and you can begin to understand why expectations should be kept in check.

The one area where I could see Ertz making an immediate impact is inside the red zone. The Eagles have struggled down by the goal line for what seems like an eternity, and Ertz has the size (6-5, 249) and athleticism to create match-up problems for defenses. He could easily lead the club’s tight ends in touchdown catches this season.

Can Clay Harbor make the team?

Outlook not great, but yeah, he has a chance. The writing is usually on the wall whenever a head coach starts asking a depth player like Harbor to try out on the opposite side of the ball. Not to make too much of Harbor getting a look for one day at outside linebacker, but given the rather crowded field of tight ends, he was already considered to be on the fringe at best.

That said, he’s not out the door just yet. His job depends first on how many tight ends Chip Kelly decides to carry on his 53-man roster. If the number is four (or higher), Harbor might have the inside track to the final spot. He plays on special teams, which will be a must here, is a willing blocker, and you can do worse in terms of an athlete.

The Eagles used a fourth-round pick on Harbor out of tiny Missouri St. in 2010, and while he’s likely past ever realizing potential as a pass-catching threat, the 26 year old has some tools to work with. He’ll face some competition from Derek Carrier and Will Shaw, and there’s no guarantee Chip keeps more than three, but Harbor’s got a fighting chance.

Will tight end replace wide receiver in the Chip Kelly’s system?

Replace is probably too strong of a word. One thing is for certain though, and that is we never would have been able to come up with five questions exclusively about tight ends during the Andy Reid era. This one comes about from a piece by Dan Klausner for Bleeding Green Nation in which the writer suggested soon there would not be any differentiation between receiver and tight end in the Eagles’ system.

Anybody can plainly see tight end is going to be a focal point of the offense based on the front office’s aggressive pursuit of Casey and Ertz during the offseason. Casey was a day-one signing in free agency, while a second-round pick for Ertz was a luxury some analysts suggested the Eagles couldn’t afford to use on the position. The NFL as a whole might be trending increasingly toward tight-end powered offenses as well after seeing what the New England Patriots have done the last couple seasons. These guys are typically all 6-3 or taller and in excess of 250-lbs., so putting two or even three of them on the field at the same time creates match-up problems in both the passing and running games.

What if all of a team’s skill players looked like that? The Eagles did attempt to add size to their receiving corps, trading for Arrelious Benn(6-2)  and giving Ifeanyi Momah (6-7) a shot.

Wide receiver will always be prevalent however because speed kills. A player with DeSean Jackson’s 4.3 burners – rare in general, rarer for a big man – on the outside stretches the field. An elusive player such as Damaris Johnson can run free out of the slot without getting pressed at the line of scrimmage, and slip into openings in the coverage much more quickly. It seems foolish not to try and utilize all of that. That makes the offense more dynamic/flexible.

So while tight end figures to be a central part of the game plan on Sundays much more heavily than ever before and increasingly so, it’s not like the wide receiver position is going extinct in Philly.

Andrew Kulp is a freelance writer covering Philadelphia sports for The700Level.com. E-mail him at andrewkulp@comcast.net or follow him on Twitter.

DeSean Jackson talks possible Eagles reunion, says Wentz 'killed it' as rookie

DeSean Jackson talks possible Eagles reunion, says Wentz 'killed it' as rookie

The connection hasn't been hard to make. And it's been made plenty of times over the last couple months. 

DeSean Jackson will become a free agent on March 9 and the Eagles are in desperate need of help at receiver, specifically someone who can stretch the field — just like their former second-round pick. 

So a reunion just makes too much sense. And it was a topic of conversation when Jackson joined Adam Schefter's ESPN podcast recently. 

"It definitely is a great story, I guess you could say," Jackson said. "Starting your career somewhere and obviously going to a division rival team and having the possibility of maybe going back. I mean you kind of just think about all of that, where you started from and maybe where you want to finish it. It’s just a lot of speculation of a lot of thoughts. It almost sounds good but you never really know until the final decision is made. 

"But I’m just a firm believer of you work hard, you put in the work, and continuously go out there and show everybody what you’re capable of doing. I think the sky is the limit for me. My agent, Joel Segal, he's in a great position. I’m in a great position. Really, I’m just going to let him be the expertise guy. He’s the one with all the experience. He’s been doing this for plenty of years. With the conversations we’ve been having, it’s great on our end. The best thing we need to do is stay under the radar, me continuously working out, and from there we’ll just sit back and see what teams are putting out there."

Jackson, 30, is probably in line for a big payday. And really, there's a pretty good chance he'll just end up going to whichever team offers him the biggest and best contract. But aside from money, Jackson, who is entering his 10th year in the NFL, said he wants to play for a team that gives him a chance to win. A big part of that is playing with a great quarterback. 

While he said Kirk Cousins is a great quarterback, having another one to catch passes from is important to Jackson. 

"I want to win," Jackson said. "Obviously, I haven't won a Super Bowl, so the team that can win, a team that has a great quarterback. And that's definitely what stands out to me."

Carson Wentz might not be a great quarterback yet, but he did have some impressive moments during his rookie season in 2016. And Jackson was watching. While Jackson first praised all the quarterbacks in the NFL, he then answered a specific question about Wentz. 

"Carson Wentz, he came in and had a heck of a year as a rookie," Jackson said. "I mean, I don’t think a lot of people saw that coming. You know, they had Sam Bradford who was there, who ended up getting traded to Minnesota, so he didn’t have no choice but to step up and be that guy. But that was a gutsy call for the organization to really believe in a young guy like that, just came out of college and give him that shot. I think he killed it. He was lights out, had heck of a year. He definitely showed me he can do it and he has all the intangibles of being a big-time quarterback in this league."

If Jackson does return to Philly, the question would be: Can Wentz reach his full potential while Jackson is still a dynamic player? 

Jackson, who turned 30 in December, said he still wants to play four, five or even six more years in the league. He thinks he can be a dynamic outside deep threat for three or four of those. 

Has he seen any drop-off in his speed? 

"Not at all," Jackson said. "I really feel like I could still (run in the) low 4.3s or 4.29 (in the 40-yard dash) like I did when I came out the combine." 

If Jackson's speed ever does diminish, he said he could play in the slot. He pointed to the end of Santana Moss' career as an example. While Jackson's planning ahead in case his speed vanishes, he is hoping it never does. 

If the reunion happens, the Eagles will be right there with him. 

Best of NHL: Trocheck's last-second goal lifts Panthers past Blues

Best of NHL: Trocheck's last-second goal lifts Panthers past Blues

ST. LOUIS -- Vincent Trocheck scored with just under 5 seconds remaining to lift the Florida Panthers to a 2-1 victory over the St. Louis Blues on Monday night.

Jonathan Marchessault also scored and James Reimer stopped 26 shots to help the Panthers complete a 5-0 road trip -- their first perfect trip of at least that many games in franchise history.

Reimer has won five straight decisions and has not lost in regulation since Jan. 7 against Boston, going 6-0-1 since.

The Panthers moved into a tie with Boston for third place in the Atlantic Division, but have the edge because they have a game in hand on the Bruins.

Kyle Brodziak, playing for the second time after missing 10 games due to a broken foot, scored for the Blues and Jake Allen finished with 31 saves. St. Louis lost its second straight since winning six in a row (see full recap).

Coyotes use three-goal 1st period to beat Ducks
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Radim Vrbata capped Arizona's three-goal first period and the Coyotes held on for 3-2 victory over the Anaheim Ducks on Monday night.

Christian Dvorak and Jakob Chychrun also scored for Arizona, and starting goalie Mike Smith had 27 saves before leaving about 4 1/2 minutes into the third period after a collision in the net. Marek Langhamer helped kill a power play after being pressed into action for his NHL debut and stopped six of the seven shots he faced.

The Coyotes have won four of their last six.

Langhamer gave up Ryan Getzlaf's second goal of the night with 26.8 seconds to play, but thwarted two quality shots in the final seconds.

Jonathan Bernier gave up three goals on six shots in the first period for the Ducks. John Gibson came on to start the second and stopped all 14 shots he faced (see full recap).