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.

Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Following a shutout, Phillies get to face Max Scherzer

Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Following a shutout, Phillies get to face Max Scherzer

Phillies (60-71) vs. Nationals (76-55)
7:05 p.m. on CSN

The Phillies couldn't hit in Monday's series opener, but they did receive the positive of Jake Thompson finally looking like he can get outs at the big-league level. Thompson allowed two runs over seven innings, but the Phils were blanked by Tanner Roark for the third time this season.

The task Tuesday night is no easier.

1. Due vs. Scherzer?
When the Phillies face Max Scherzer, you can essentially chalk it up as an automatic loss. The Phils are one of the weaker offenses, Scherzer is one of the game's best pitchers, and his track record against them is nearly flawless.

Scherzer (14-7, 2.92) has faced the Phillies eight times since 2013. He's 6-0 with 1.74 ERA and a 0.82 WHIP, with 62 strikeouts and 10 walks in 57 innings. 

Scherzer had some early missteps this season, caused mostly by home runs, but he's been incredible since the middle of May, when he tied a MLB record with 20 strikeouts in a game. Since that game, he's 11-5 with a 2.40 ERA and .172 opponents' batting average in 20 starts. He's struck out 181 and walked 29 in those 139 innings. Ridiculous. Otherworldly.

Unfortunately for the Phillies, they'll be seeing a lot of Scherzer moving forward. He's in the second of a seven-year, $210 million free-agent contract with the Nationals that, to this point, he's lived up to.

Scherzer has a blazing fastball and a disappearing breaking ball. He throws strike after strike after strike, which is ironically what gets him into trouble at times. Like Cliff Lee, Scherzer is around the plate so often that hitters tend to attack his early fastballs. The result is a lot of solo home runs. But Scherzer has even corrected that issue of late, allowing just five homers over his last 11 starts.

2. Learn from Herrera
Odubel Herrera has had by far the most success of any active Phillie vs. Scherzer. He's 6 for 19 with a double, a triple and five walks. There are only six players in baseball with at least 20 plate appearances against Scherzer and an on-base percentage higher than Herrera's .458.

Herrera had a multi-hit game Monday, his fourth in his last eight contests. He's hitting .283/.361/.413 in 540 plate appearances this season, providing pretty much the same offense he did a year ago. But still, the Phillies would like to see more consistency from Herrera over the season's final month. His OBP had declined every month this year until August.

Phils manager Pete Mackanin said on Monday that Herrera will remain in center field the rest of the season. Mackanin had indicated several weeks ago that Herrera would see some time in the corner outfield to allow the organization to get a look at Aaron Altherr and perhaps even Roman Quinn in center field in September, but that's no longer the plan. Quinn is on the concussion DL at Double A, and the Phillies don't want to move Herrera around or do anything to affect his confidence at this point.

It still seems likely that Herrera will end up at a different position in the future because the Phillies have better defensive centerfielders.

3. Their steadiest starter
Jerad Eickhoff tonight makes his 27th start of 2016 and 35th career start for the Phillies. He's 9-12 with a 3.87 ERA this season and 12-15 with a 3.57 ERA in his career.

Eickhoff is coming off yet another quality start, his 14th. He's pitched at least six innings in 17 of his 25 starts. 

Strange as it is, Eickhoff has faced the division-rival Nationals only once in his career so far. He allowed two runs to them over seven innings with 10 strikeouts in his penultimate start last season.

Eickhoff has been much better this season at home (3.27 ERA) than on the road (4.56).

4. A night for small ball
One of the Phillies' goals this season was to manufacture runs because they don't have a ton of power. That will be especially necessary tonight against Scherzer, who's shut down every Phils hitter with pop.

Maikel Franco, Tommy Joseph and Cameron Rupp are a combined 5 for 31 (.161) off Scherzer. Ryan Howard, who's unlikely to play, is 1 for 18 with 11 strikeouts.

Meanwhile, Herrera has gotten on base with regularity against him, and Cesar Hernandez is 5 for 18 with a double. Herrera and Hernandez will need to reach base and run tonight. Scherzer, however, does a better job than most aces of controlling the running game. He's allowed just 11 steals on 14 attempts in 60 starts with the Nationals.

5. This and that
• A loss tonight would put the Phillies 12 games under .500. Their record hasn't been that bad since June 27, which was 53 games ago.

• The Phils are 6-12 against the NL East since the All-Star break.

• It would have been difficult for Jayson Werth to play up to the seven-year, $126 million contract he got with the Nationals after 2010, but when you look back at his tenure in Washington he's had only two bad years out of six. In more than 3,000 plate appearances with the Nats, Werth has hit .269/.361/.442 for an .803 OPS that is 18 percent better than the league average over that span.

Phillies shut out, but Jake Thompson's best start yet and kudos to that one fan

Phillies shut out, but Jake Thompson's best start yet and kudos to that one fan

You knew it probably wasn't going to be a very good night for the Phillies after Jayson Werth led off the game with a home run for the Washington Nationals. After the smarting blow from our former WFC RF, the Nats picked up another run to go up 2-0 in the first, and that was plenty for the NL East leaders on a windy Monday night in Philly. The Fightins managed just four hits, one walk, and zero runs worth of offense, and Tanner Roark and the Nats shut 'em out, 4-0, for the series opener. (That's Werth's 18th homer against the Phils, btw — one off his single-opponent high of 19 against the Braves, and in about 60 fewer games.)

Luckily, the night wasn't a complete wash for the Phils: We got our best start yet — indeed, the first one that would likely qualify as "good" — from young righty starter Jake Thompson, who buckled down after the two first-inning runs, and went six scoreless from there. (Thompson had yet to pitch more than three consecutive innings without an earned run in his four starts to date.) The starter's finest inning was his last, where he notched all three of his strikeouts on the evening, including a particular beauty dropped in for a third strike on an incredulous Trea Turner to close the frame. For a 22-year-old pitcher whose early-career issues are often said to be more mental than mechanical, it could be a huge confidence boost to come through like that against one of the best offenses in the NL.

Meanwhile, the other hero for the Phils tonight came in the guise of a fan sitting on the first-base line, who responded to a Frank Herrmann pickoff overthrow by reflexively cleanly fielding the ball as it bounced near the seats. The fan-interference got Nats third-baseman Anthony Rendon, who was well on his way to third base, called back to second, incensing Washington manager Dusty Baker and earning the fan a good deal of high-fives from the fans in his section. He got booted from the stadium — and Rendon was rewarded third base anyway after Baker's challenge was supported by replay — but y'know. No one can say dude didn't do what he could, and that's all anyone can ask of a real fan.

Jerad Eickhoff vs. Max Scherzer at 7:00 tonight. Still just 9.5 games out of the second wild-card spot.

Penn State tries to move forward without abandoning Joe Paterno

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AP

Penn State tries to move forward without abandoning Joe Paterno

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Legends tend to linger in college football even after they are gone. At Penn State, getting out from under Joe Paterno's shadow is more complicated than the typical transition from a coaching giant.

After being the most stable — in many ways stagnant — football program in the country for nearly five decades, Penn State has been awash in change in the five years since Jerry Sandusky became infamous and dragged down Paterno with him.

Moving forward has required Penn State's new leaders to perform a most difficult maneuver: Distancing the school from a child sexual-abuse scandal that drew worldwide attention and shook Happy Valley, while not appearing to abandon the memory of the coach who many Penn Staters believe gave the university an identity for which they can still be proud.

"I think that is the ultimate challenge here," Penn State coach James Franklin told The Associated Press. "How do you balance the history, the traditions, all the wonderful things that are deep rooted here and have been here forever, (while) also making moves that you need to be progressive and to be moving towards a healthy present and a healthy future."

Franklin is entering his third season at Penn State. For the first time this season, Franklin will have the full allotment of 85 scholarships available when the Nittany Lions open at home against Kent State on Saturday. Penn State has gone 7-6 each of Franklin's first two years.

Moving forward at Penn State, though, is not just about getting past NCAA scholarship sanctions and bowl bans.

For Franklin, the 44-year-old first African-American football coach in Penn State history, one challenge is trying to get former players to actively support a program that no longer feels like home.

"The ones that have come back and been around us and spent time with us and come to practice have been really good," the former Vanderbilt coach said. "But there's been a group of guys that haven't been back because once again there's a fracture. There's still hurt feelings. It's not as just simple as the new coach."

Paterno coached at Penn State for 46 seasons. He was fired by the school's board of trustees days after Sandusky, his longtime defensive coordinator, was arrested in November 2011 for molesting and raping boys. Paterno died two and a half months later of lung cancer.

The statue of Paterno was removed from outside Beaver Stadium on July 22, 2012. Paterno's name is still on the campus library built in part by his donations, but highly visible and university sponsored signs of him are hard to find.

"I think Penn State needs to embrace Joe Paterno for who he was, for what he did at Penn State, unequivocally and without hesitation," said Anthony Lubrano, a Penn State alum and elected member of the board of trustees.

Lubrano said the university at minimum needs to apologize to Paterno's wife, Sue, display the statue again and rename the stadium Paterno Field at Beaver Stadium.

While juggling wishes of ardent supporters like Lubrano, university leadership is also trying to convey to those for whom Paterno will never be completely redeemed that Penn State's values were not tied directly to one man.

Splits in the relationship between Penn State and its supporters can take a practical toll on the university and athletic department's ability to compete with Michigan and Ohio State in the Big Ten. According to a university report, private support and donations to Penn State have seesawed widely since the scandal, from a high of $274.8 million in 2011 to $226 million in 2015.

Penn State's average attendance the last four seasons is 98,685, among the best in the country. But Beaver Stadium seats 107,000-plus and 9,000 empty seats per game costs the athletic department millions.

Athletic director Sandy Barbour and her team are considering a massive facilities upgrade, including either a renovation or a rebuild of the 56-year-old stadium. Donors will be needed, but the mere suggestion of taking down the stadium was not well received by some fans, Barbour said.

Barbour and Franklin try to stress that they will protect the things Paterno left behind that Penn Staters value most: Continuing Paterno's so-called Grand Experiment of prioritizing academics and character and winning the right way.

"Depending on their position people may look at him differently, but it doesn't change that he created that here. Or helped to create that here," said Barbour, the former California AD.

As outsiders trying to lead an athletic department that had the same face for nearly 50 years, Barbour and Franklin understand full support and acceptance will take time. Winning more football games would help, but there's a chicken-and-egg relationship between support and winning.

"I think we are still going through a healing process. I think what made Penn State successful for so long, and I think if you look at the programs across the country that were having success at the highest levels, everybody's aligned," Franklin said. "The head football coach, the athletic director, the president, the board and the alumni. That's what Penn State was for a long time. We need to get back to that to be the program that everybody wants us to be."

Many in the Penn State community are not yet ready to let go of how the school and Paterno were blamed and punished for the crimes of Sandusky, who is serving a 60-year prison sentence.

"And what many Penn Staters believe that the entirety of the Penn State community was accused of is really difficult for them to process," Barbour said. "That as a Penn State alum, as a Penn State employee, they're being painted with that brush."

The Paterno family and their staunchest supporters, including some of Penn State's most famous football alumni such as Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris, have dug in on redeeming the coach.

"Since Joe Paterno died, a lot of people suddenly got brave and said a lot of things about him that weren't true because he couldn't defend himself," Jay Paterno, Joe's son and a former Penn State assistant coach, said in a recent speech to the Lake Erie Alumni Association.

The latest round of allegations came in May from unsealed court documents, with an alleged Sandusky victim saying he complained to Paterno about Sandusky in 1976 and was rebuffed. University President Eric Barron responded with a carefully worded defense of the school and Paterno.

"None of these allegations about the supposed knowledge of university employees has been substantiated in a court of law or in any other process to test their veracity," Barron said.

But Barron, Barbour and Franklin can only go so far in their recognition of Paterno.

The 50th anniversary of Paterno's first game as Penn State coach is Sept. 17, when the Nittany Lions host Temple. There is a celebration in the works and a dinner being planned for family members, friends and former players in the State College area the night before the game. No event is scheduled yet to acknowledge the anniversary at Beaver Stadium.

"No matter what position as leadership you take on the continuum, there are others that are going to criticize," Barbour said. "Those that think that Penn State's not been stood up for enough. There are those that think Coach Paterno has not been stood up for enough. There are those that think Coach Paterno has been stood up for too much. It's all along the continuum. For leadership, really for anybody, that's a challenge."

Penn State football will never be the same, but there is hope for those who believe some things should never change.

"Have these times been difficult?" senior offensive lineman Andrew Nelson said. "Yeah, sure. But Penn State is defined by the tradition, you know? It's defined by the academics. It's defined by the type of guys that come play here. It doesn't matter exactly who's sitting in that head coaching position, we have special things here. After a while, Coach Franklin really helped us buy into that. And he bought into that, too. What makes Penn State special will always be here."