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-Vikings predictions by our (cough) experts

Eagles-Vikings predictions by our (cough) experts

The Eagles are coming off two straight losses and the slate doesn't get any easier with the 5-0 Vikings coming to town.

It also marks the return of Sam Bradford, who was traded just before Week 1, paving the way for rookie Carson Wentz to start.

The Eagles kick off against Minnesota at the Linc on Sunday at 1 p.m., so it's time for our (cough) experts' predictions for the Week 7 matchup.

Dave Zangaro (2-3)
I'll admit, this game just has a weird feel. It has the feeling like the Eagles might be able to catch the Vikings sleeping after their bye week and hand them their first loss of the season.

I was almost tempted to pick the Birds in this one.

But I'm not.

Ultimately, the Vikings are just the better team. I'm not sure how the Eagles are going to put up points against them. And I'm not convinced the Eagles' defense will be able to stop anyone after what we saw last weekend.

They keep it close, but the Birds fall to 3-3.

Vikings 20, Eagles 17

Derrick Gunn (2-3)
The good news is Minnesota's offense is ranked 30th in the league and the Vikings' run game is dead last averaging 70.6 yards per game. 

The bad news is the Vikings' defense is a monster, ranked 2nd overall and first in points allowed at 12.6.

There is not a weak link in the Vikings' D and they are fundamentally sound across the board. The Eagles' defense vows that what happened to them at Washington — allowing 230 rushing yards — won't happen again. 

Carson Wentz got roughed up by the Redskins' pass rush, and unless the Eagles' offensive line plugs the leaks, more of the same could happen this Sunday. The Birds have every reason to rebound at home, but I just don't like the overall matchup. 

Vikings 20, Eagles 13

Ray Didinger (2-3)
The Vikings aren't going undefeated. You don't go 16-0 in the NFL with a 30th ranked offense which is what the Vikings have. Yes, their defense is very good. Going back to last season they have held each of their last nine opponents to 17 points or less. They are deep, fast and well-coached by Mike Zimmer. But the offense led by Sam Bradford coughs and sputters a lot.
As a result, the Vikings will play a lot of close, low-scoring games and somewhere along the line they are going to lose. It could even happen this week when they play the Eagles. Special teams could be huge. The Eagles have a big edge with kicker Caleb Sturgis. Vikings kicker Blair Walsh has already missed three field goals and two PATs. However, the Vikings return men -- Marcus Sherels on punts, Cordarrelle Patterson on kickoffs -- are very dangerous. I expect the Eagles to keep it close but in the end I have to go with the superior defense.
Vikings 21, Eagles 16

Andrew Kulp (2-3)
Which Eagles defense shows up on Sunday? If they can limit Minnesota's anemic ground attack, which ranks dead last in the NFL, this should be a close game. Sam Bradford is playing really well, but it's not like he's airing it out all over the place.

Then it becomes a question of how Halapoulivaati Vaitai responds to a rough debut. The Vikings pass-rush is fierce, so it doesn't get any easier this week. As long as the protection gives Carson Wentz a chance, that will at least give the rookie signal-caller a shot at making a few big plays.

For some reason, I like their chances at both. It's going to be another ugly one, but the Eagles do just enough to squeak by.

Eagles 20, Vikings 19

Corey Seidman (2-3)
I foresee a low-scoring game in which the Eagles are more competitive than some might think.

But in the end, the Vikings have the personnel and the defensive-minded head coach (Mike Zimmer) to get key stops down the stretch.

Vikings 20, Eagles 16

Andy Schwartz (1-4)
You’re still reading? 

Well good for you. Much appreciated. 

Because clearly I certainly don’t know what to expect from this team. 

But let’s forget all that for the moment and look at the Bradford Bowl. 

The Vikings’ offense is hardly scary (30th in the league in yards per game behind the Rams and Niners), but their defense is (second in yards per game behind Seattle).

The Eagles’ offense is hardly scary (22nd in yards per game), and their defense (sixth in yards per game) was pretty scary a few weeks ago.

So let’s look at the intangibles. Which team needs this game more? The Eagles. And they’re at home. 

But given the outcomes the last two weeks and that Minnesota is unbeaten and coming off a bye, it certainly makes sense to pick the Vikes, who are favored by 2.5.

Then again, the Eagles not too long ago were unbeaten and coming off a bye … and we all know what happened.

So I’ll say the Birds pull off another upset and remain unbeaten at the Linc. 

Just don’t bet on it.

Eagles 6, Vikings 5

Report: Nerlens Noel expected out 3-5 weeks after left knee surgery

Report: Nerlens Noel expected out 3-5 weeks after left knee surgery

It appears the Sixers' frontcourt logjam may not be an issue early on.

Nerlens Noel, who is having surgery Monday for an inflamed plica in his left knee, will miss the first three to five weeks of the season, according to Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Noel suffered a left groin injury in the first preseason game against the Celtics and missed the rest of the preseason. While undergoing treatment, Noel reported left knee soreness, which led to the discovery of the inflamed plica.

It's been an odd start to the season for Noel. The big man was outspoken about his displeasure with the Sixers' frontcourt situation early in camp. With the deadline for Noel's rookie contract extension approaching on Oct. 31, the team has not had conversations about it, according to a report.

The Sixers are already without No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons as he recovers from surgery to repair a Jones fracture in his right foot. The team will also be without their starting point guard Jerryd Bayless who is dealing with a ligament issue in his left wrist. Bayless won't require surgery and will be reevaluated in two weeks.