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.

Maikel Franco's benching continues as Howie Kendrick readies to play 3rd base in minors

Maikel Franco's benching continues as Howie Kendrick readies to play 3rd base in minors

The benching of Maikel Franco lasted for a second day Wednesday.

When will it end?

"It's a day-to-day thing," Pete Mackanin said. "No specific plan."

Franco is hitting just .221 with a .281 on-base percentage and a .377 slugging percentage.

Mackanin first benched his third baseman/cleanup hitter on Tuesday. At the time, the manager said he was trying to take some heat off the slumping Franco and let him clear his mind, but the overriding reason for the benching is simple: Mackanin is looking for Franco to make the fundamental adjustments in his swing that will lead to more production.

"At this level you've got to produce," Mackanin said Tuesday. "You want to play, you've got to hit and they have to understand that. Nobody is here on scholarship.

"As much as he works in the cage and on the field in batting practice and does it right, when he gets in the game his head is still flying and his bat is coming out of the zone.

"I can't teach you to keep your head in there. I can tell you to do it, but you have to do it on your own and he's got to figure it out. … If you make outs the same way over and over, it's not going to change."

Franco on Wednesday said he understands the benching. He is disappointed in his production.

"Yes, I'm disappointed," he said. "I know I can produce better and help the team more. Nobody wants to be in this situation, hitting .220. The only thing to do is try to get better.

"I think any good hitter hitting .220 is going to be disappointed. I will not stop working and doing what I have to to get better."

Typically, a manager, especially one such as Mackanin, whose strength is communication, would speak to a player and lay out the reasons for an extended benching.

But Mackanin has chosen to let the lineup card do the talking on this one. He'd like to speak with Franco about the situation, but wants the player to come to him.

It doesn't sound like that's going to happen.

"They understand and I understand, you know?" Franco said. "I'm not the guy to go into the manager's office and say, 'Why am I not in the lineup?' I want to play. He knows what he's doing and I know what I'm capable of doing. Every single day when I come in, I'm 100 percent mentally ready to be in the lineup and I'm ready to play. If I'm not in the lineup, I have to get relaxed and just try to do everything I can to make an adjustment so when I'm in the lineup, I'll do my job."

Andres Blanco played third base in place of Franco on Tuesday and Wednesday. If Franco doesn't improve when he gets back in the lineup — whenever that may be — there could soon be another player in the mix at third base.

Howie Kendrick began a minor-league rehab assignment at Lehigh Valley on Wednesday night. He played left field in that game. Mackanin said the rehab stint would last four games and that Kendrick would also play first and third base.

Do the math on that one.

Franco can be optioned to the minors so that could also be a possibility if his problems persist.

NHL Notes: Penguins, Senators have chance at history in Game 7

NHL Notes: Penguins, Senators have chance at history in Game 7

PITTSBURGH -- Craig Anderson is a realist, the byproduct of 15 years playing the most demanding position in the NHL.

The Ottawa goaltender would like to chalk his 45-save masterpiece in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals against Pittsburgh up to his own brilliance. He knows that's not exactly the case.

"I think you need to be a little bit lucky to be good at times," Anderson said.

Ottawa has relied on a bit of both during its deepest playoff run in a decade and Anderson helped force Game 7 Thursday night. Yet here the Senators are, alive and still skating with a chance to eliminate the deeper, more experienced and more explosive Stanley Cup champions.

So much for the series being over after the Penguins destroyed Ottawa 7-0 in Game 5.

"I think, if you believe you're beaten, you're done already," Anderson said. "If you believe that you can win, there's always a chance."

All the Senators have to do to reach the Stanley Cup Final for just the second time in franchise history is take down one of the league's marquee franchises on the road in a building where they were beaten by a touchdown last time out.

No pressure or anything. Really. The Senators weren't supposed to be here. Then again, in a way neither were the Penguins. No team has repeated in nearly two decades and at times during the season and even during the playoffs this group was too beat up. Too tired from last spring's Cup run. The bullseye on their backs too big.

Yet they've survived behind the brilliance of stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, coach Mike Sullivan's impeccable decisions and a resiliency that has them one game from being the first Cup champion to return to the finals since Detroit in 2009.

Those Red Wings, by the way, fell to the Penguins in seven games. There have been several Game 7s for Pittsburgh in the interim on both sides of the ledger, though the Penguins are 2-0 in Game 7s under Sullivan. They edged Tampa Bay in Game 7 of last year's East finals and clinically disposed of Presidents' Trophy winner Washington in Game 7 of the second round earlier this month (see full story).

Predators: Goalie Rinne on smothering run
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Knocking the smile off Pekka Rinne's face right now is nearly impossible.

The longest-tenured player with the Nashville Predators, the 34-year-old goaltender finally will play in his first Stanley Cup Final in his ninth full NHL season.

"As a player, I feel like I've had a fairly long career and never had this opportunity," Rinne said. "So very fortunate and really appreciate this opportunity. I guess as a player you just enjoy being in this position. Enjoy the chance that you get, and you put your body on the line every night and give everything you have."

Teammates call the 6-foot-5 Finn the backbone of the Predators, and he's probably the best goalie in the world at the moment. He handles the puck like an extra defenseman. He foils the dump-and-chase efforts of opponents. And, oh, is he good in front of the net, aggressive with forwards in the crease, seeing seemingly everything and occasionally making saves with a Dominik Hasek-like contortion.

Not only is Rinne a playoff-best 12-4, his .945 save percentage ranks third all-time for a single postseason behind a pair of Conn Smythe Trophy winners in Jean-Sebastien Giguere for Anaheim in 2003 and Jonathan Quick for Los Angeles in 2012, according to HockeyReference.com. Rinne's 1.70 goals-against average is 10th all-time for one postseason.

"What he does every night, you can't put into words," Nashville defenseman P.K. Subban said (see full story).

Blues: Sydor returns to Blues as assistant
ST. LOUIS -- Darryl Sydor has returned to the St. Louis Blues as an assistant coach under mentor Mike Yeo.

Sydor agreed to a three-year deal Wednesday.

The 45-year-old Sydor finished his 18-year NHL playing career with the Blues in 2009-10, then broke into coaching as Yeo's assistant the next season with the American Hockey League's Houston Aeros. Sydor went with Yeo to Minnesota and spent five years with the Wild before working as an assistant last season with the Blues' then-Chicago affiliate in the AHL.

Sydor was a defenseman for Los Angeles, Dallas, Columbus, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and St. Louis, winning Stanley Cup titles with Dallas and Tampa Bay.

Coyotes: Cunningham hired as pro scout
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Arizona Coyotes have hired Craig Cunningham as a pro scout and say he will assist with player development.

General manager John Chayka announced the two-year contract Wednesday that allows Cunningham to remain in hockey.

Cunningham collapsed on the ice with a cardiac disturbance prior to a game Nov. 19 while playing for the American Hockey League's Tucson Roadrunners and required emergency life-saving care. He had part of his left leg amputated and saw his playing career end.

But the 26-year-old who was captain of the Roadrunners last season says he's excited to start the next chapter of his hockey career in the Coyotes' front office. Chayka called Cunningham a "smart, hard-working player with an incredible passion for the game" that he believes will translate to his new job.