Replacing DeSean: More Zach Ertz, please

Replacing DeSean: More Zach Ertz, please

82 receptions, 1,332 yards receiving, nine touchdowns; that’s what the Philadelphia Eagles must replace in the NFL’s No. 2 offense after the release of DeSean Jackson. Where’s it supposed to come from? Not necessarily from any one player. In this four part series, we examine whose roles will increase as a result of the move. [ Part 1: Jeremy Maclin ][ Part 2: Darren Sproles ]

There was a lot of talk about how prevalent the tight end position was going to be in Chip Kelly’s offense when the head coach first arrived in Philadelphia. The Eagles quickly signed James Casey to a free-agent contract, then proceeded to spend the 35th overall pick on Zach Ertz out of Stanford.

We even saw a formation that put as many as four tight ends on the field at one time in a preseason game.

Once the regular season got underway though, Kelly didn’t go as heavy on tight ends as many presumed he would. The Eagles used 11 personnel—one back, one tight end, three wide receivers—roughly 75 percent of the time in 2013, often more than that earlier in the year.

It’s safe to say there should be an increase in the use of tight ends moving forward, if for no other reason than out of necessity. The Birds will surely draft a receiver, but there’s no telling how much a rookie will be ready to contribute from day one, and while there are some viable No. 3 candidates already on the roster, likely nobody that absolutely must be on the field.

Of course, the expansion of the tight ends’ role in Kelly’s offense should also be organic to an extent. The simple fact of the matter is Ertz demands more playing time based on his performance down the stretch last season.

In nine games from November on through the playoffs, Ertz was a beast, pulling down 25 receptions for 290 yards (11.6 AVG) and five touchdowns. Bear in mind he was still playing fewer than 50 percent of the offensive snaps, while games such as the Snow Bowl and a 54-11 blowout of the Chicago Bears naturally made for fewer opportunities to have an impact.

Ertz’s emergence in the second half came as no surprise. He’s an obvious matchup problem at 6’5”, 250 pounds with 4.68 speed—a smooth route-runner as well, particularly for a first-year player.

There’s no limit to what Kelly can do with Ertz in his offense. He can line up as a traditional in-line tight end or in the slot, as has become popular around the league. There were even instances where Ertz was lined up outside the numbers.

The key is getting Ertz on the field, only not necessarily at the expense of Brent Celek. While the seven-year veteran experienced a dramatic dip in overall production, he made his presence felt as one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL, particularly in the running game.

And although Celek’s 32 receptions and 502 yards were his lowest since taking over as starter, it wasn’t apparent that was due to any decline in his ability. 15.7 yards per reception was a personal best by over two yards, six touchdowns the second-highest total of his career.

With Jackson out of the picture, and no clear-cut No. 3 receiver, there is definitely room for both Celek and Ertz in the offense going forward.

Ertz wound up finishing the ’13 campaign with 36 catches, 469 yards and four touchdowns, which is better than all but a handful of active tight ends can say for their rookie seasons. Those numbers compare favorably and in most cases are better than the likes of Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez, Jimmy Graham, Jason Witten and Vernon Davis when they were pups, to name a few.

Not bad company. Not bad at all.

To be fair, it’s impossible to project exactly what Ertz’s ceiling is or exactly what type of figures he’ll post next season. Just because a player had a better rookie year than some multi-time Pro Bowlers/Hall of Fame types doesn’t guarantee he’ll ascend to that level himself.

That being said, if last season was any indication, Ertz has the potential to make a push for the 1,000-yard mark and/or double-digit touchdowns. All he needs is the opportunity, which it seems obvious he’ll have… and then some.

Eagles 'not comfortable' after historic 3-0 start

Eagles 'not comfortable' after historic 3-0 start

They’re not just beating people. They’re destroying people. They're not just winning. They're doing it in historic fashion. And they're not just 3-0. They're 3-0 with a first-year coach and a rookie quarterback.

This just doesn't happen.

Yet it's happening.

“I know a lot of people said the first two games we didn’t play anybody, stuff like that,” linebacker Nigel Bradham said. “But we just play whoever’s on the schedule, and it’s hard to win every week in the NFL. Definitely encouraging to start out the way we have."

The Eagles are only the second team in NFL history with a new head coach to win its first three games by 15 or more points. The 2007 Steelers, whose head coach Mike Tomlin was across the sideline Sunday afternoon, also did it.

But that team’s quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, was in his fourth season and had already won a Super Bowl.

This team’s quarterback was a third-stringer a month ago.

Unprecedented stuff.

Nobody saw this coming, and if they say they did, they’re lying.

The Eagles improved to 3-0 Sunday afternoon with a 34-3 shellacking of a Steelers team a lot of people expect to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, a team that hadn’t lost by 31 points in 27 years (see Instant Replay).

"We got that full head of steam," rookie tailback Wendell Smallwood said. "I think we're going to keep rolling. We're not going to sit back and get comfortable at all. We're going to keep it going and keep rolling."

The Eagles go into the bye week one of five 3-0 teams in the NFL, and the only one with a rookie coach.

They’ve outscored their three opponents by 19, 15 and 31 points. They have the hottest rookie quarterback in NFL history and a defense that hasn’t allowed a second-half touchdown.

“I’ll bet there’s a lot of new Eagles fans today,” Bradham said. “We have a lot of hardcore fans here, but I’m sure they started coming out of the woodwork all over the country when they saw our score today.”

The Eagles are 3-0 for only the ninth time in their 84-year history. They’re in first place in the NFC East and they’ve played extraordinary football on both sides of the ball (see 10 Observations).

The Browns are the Browns. The Bears are the Bears.

But a win over the Steelers? That’s legit.

“We saw this game as kind of a respect game, an offense of that caliber going against a defense like us?” safety Rodney McLeod said. “It was a matchup to see and we came out victorious. But it doesn’t end here. We’ve got a lot of work to do."

The Steelers hadn’t lost by 31 points since a 41-10 loss to the Bengals in 1989. And they had never lost by 31 points to an NFC team since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.

Unprecedented stuff.

“We still can be better,” defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said. “We can grow. We’re not comfortable. That’s what I think of this team.

“Nobody is comfortable or patting themselves on the back. We know we can be better. We will go and watch the film (Monday). I’m sure there were a lot of mistakes, including myself, to correct. Everybody stays focused.”

Considering the Eagles haven’t won a playoff game since 2008, it’s easy to get carried away right now.

It’s been a seven-year drought since Donovan McNabb, Brian Dawkins and Brian Westbrook led that 2008 team to the NFC Championship Game.

Finally, some new names to be excited about. Carson Wentz. Rodney McLeod. Wendell Smallwood. 

“This is what I think everybody here fully expected,” center Jason Kelce said. “When you’ve been in the league for a while, you can tell when you have good players, a good team.

“I think, even in the offseason, I think everybody, just looking at the roster we had, I thought we were very underrated in the media’s eye, (and) honestly, it seems like our team always does better when the media doesn’t expect us to do well.

“Obviously, nobody expected Sam (Bradford) to get traded right before the season and Carson to get the start. But he deserves all the praise he’s getting. He’s been the most consistent player through these first three games. What Carson has done, in my opinion, as a rookie, has been incredible.”

Wentz is the first quarterback to go 3-0 the first three weeks of his rookie season without throwing an interception (see photo gallery).

On Sunday, he became the first rookie in NFL history to throw for 300 yards in a game, complete 74 percent of his passes and throw two or more TDs and no interceptions.

Like we said … unprecedented stuff. 

Historic stuff.

Simply unbelievable stuff.

But the defense has been just as impressive. Since giving up a touchdown in the second quarter to the Bears, the Eagles have faced 19 consecutive possessions without allowing a touchdown.

They’ve allowed a TD on only one of the last 31 drives they’ve defended.

The last time the defense gave up a second-half touchdown, Pat Shurmur was the head coach. 

“I think we still have a lot of room to grow,” cornerback Nolan Carroll said. “We can’t get too far ahead of ourselves. It’s three games, but I feel like every single week we keep improving, keep fixing our mistakes.”

The Eagles have outscored their three opponents by a combined 65 points, which is the second-largest differential in Eagles history after three games.

The 1980 team outscored its first three opponents by 88 points on the way to Super Bowl XV.

“Everyone is starting to play kind of inspired football,” Wentz said. “Everybody is believing in each other and it’s been three great team wins. The defense is playing phenomenal, the special teams are doing a great job and offensively we’re doing our part.

“I think everyone around here was confident, and we knew we had the ability, but we had to keep chopping. ‘Keep chopping away’ is a motto that we have, and we’ve done a good job of it.”

How far can chopping take them?

“Our goal is going to the Bowl and get that trophy,” Bradham said. “That’s our goal and that’s what we want to do. It’s still early. There’s a lot of football to go. And we know we have to keep fighting to get there.”

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Eagles in awe of Carson Wentz after another stunning performance

Eagles in awe of Carson Wentz after another stunning performance

Carson Wentz clearly had some 60,000 fans cheering for him during Sunday’s 34-3 drubbing of the cross-state Pittsburgh Steelers (see Instant Replay).

He had a few fans on the sideline too. 

During Sunday’s game, when the Eagles’ offense was on the field, defensive teammates couldn’t help but stop to watch the electrifying rookie. 

“I watch him all the time,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said, cracking a smile. “It’s impressive what he’s doing, man. I think everybody is waiting to see him fall off or see a bad decision or see a rookie mistake. But so far, they haven’t come. He’s been the key reason why we’re 3-0. 

“What he’s doing is great. It’s amazing. It’s something that I think he’ll downplay, but there’s no doubt about it, what he’s doing is special. I think it’s a testament to his preparation, his demeanor.”

Against the Steelers, Wentz put forth his best game of his young three-game career. He completed 23 of 31 passes for 301 yards, two touchdowns, zero interceptions and had a passer rating of 125.9 (see 10 observations)

Wentz became the first NFL rookie ever to have a game with 300-plus passing yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a completion percentage above 74. He also became the third rookie in Eagles history to throw for 300-plus yards with two touchdowns in a game.

Wentz actually outperformed Pittsburgh starting quarterback and future Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger on Sunday. 

"I thought he played great,” Roethlisberger said. “He won the game."

What Wentz is doing is special. 

So special even his teammates on the other side of the football are taking time to notice in between preparing for their next series. 

“You find yourself hearing the crowd getting excited,” linebacker Jordan Hicks said. “You’re watching the plays and we’re jumping up and down getting excited with them. You find yourself doing those things. When the offense is doing what they’re doing and then we’re doubling back and doing what we’re doing, it’s just tough to spot.”

“Oh yeah. It feels good,” cornerback Nolan Carroll said. “It’s great for them to move the chains and Carson does a good job. He’s seasoned. It’s only his third game in the NFL but he’s seems like a vet.”

Through three games, Wentz has completed nearly 65 percent of his passes for 769 yards. He has five touchdowns and still hasn’t thrown an interception in 102 career passes.  

On Sunday against the Steelers, he continued to wow onlookers. His best feat of the night came on an off-schedule play in the third quarter. With the Eagles still just up by 10 points, Wentz rolled right and found Darren Sproles, who caught the ball and ran the rest of the way for a 73-yard touchdown pass.

“We always say, hey a play’s never dead,” Wentz said. 

It was just the 16th 73-yard-plus touchdown pass in Eagles history. 

Maybe Wentz has always been this confident in himself, but now his teammates are undoubtedly behind him. 

“He continues to blow my mind away,” receiver Josh Huff said. “The poise he has, the way he commands the huddle, all the guys listening to him. He brings a ton of energy every day, especially on game days. … The team’s with him right now and that’s one of the reasons we played so well today. We have a good quarterback … a great quarterback.”

While Philadelphia will certainly be engulfed in Wentz-mania in the coming weeks, the buzz within the locker room is palpable too. 

“I told [head coach Doug Pederson] being 10 years in, this kid is inspiring me,” tight end Brent Celek said. “He’s adding youth to my game just by the way he’s acting, being in the huddle, taking command, it’s beyond impressive. It’s great. We have to keep it going. I’m not going to sit here and say we’re the greatest team, but I’m excited with how he’s playing and he’s elevating everybody else’s play by the way he’s handling it.”

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