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 camp Day 6 observations: The pads finally go on

Eagles camp Day 6 observations: The pads finally go on

It kinda looked like football today!

After months of watching Eagles run around in shorts, the pads went on this morning. No, the team didn’t go live (tackling to the ground), but the pads were popping some and it actually resembled the real game way more than the previous days' sessions. The plan is to go three days with pads before a day without them.

A few guys – Nolan Carroll, Rueben Randle, to name a few – left practice early thanks to injuries, but it didn’t appear any of the injuries were serious (see story).

Here are some observations from Saturday’s practice:

• The much-anticipated first play of 11-on-11s was won by left defensive end Vinny Curry, who blew past right tackle Lane Johnson and would have had a sack if not for that pesky red jersey Sam Bradford was wearing.

How did Curry feel today?

“Hot," he said. "Hot."

You don’t look hot.

“I got my crop top on, you know what I mean,” he said, showing off his green shirt with midriff showing. “It was fun though, man. I got a lot to learn. I’ve got a long way to go.”

• After Curry got a chance to show his stuff with the first team, Marcus Smith flashed with the twos. Yes, that Marcus Smith. On the first play, he beat Matt Tobin, who has been working at left tackle. It’s obviously early and he’s the fourth-best defensive end on the roster, but the switch to the 4-3 defense could actually make him a serviceable NFL player. He’s better going downhill. Smith looked good in 1-on-1 drills against Dennis Kelly later.

• My favorite drills in training camp are offensive line vs. defensive line 1-on-1s. It’s high entertainment between the two biggest and strongest positions on the field. Fletcher Cox is unstoppable in these drills and will be until Brandon Brooks is healthy enough to practice. He’s used to going against monsters from his time in Houston against J.J. Watt. Today, Cox wasn’t stoppable.

Rookie Alex McCalister looks like a string bean and was no match for Halapoulivaati Vaitai. Rookie Destiny Vaeao had a nice power move on Dillon Gordon. Brandon Graham beat Malcolm Bunche with a sweet move to end the drill, which brought plenty of cheers from his defensive line teammates.

• Play of the day belongs to Randle. He made an incredible one-handed grab on a ball from Sam Bradford during individual drills. Randle has been getting looks with the first-team offense and has looked good. Unfortunately, he left early with cramps.

• If you’re looking for a bunch of quarterback analysis today, I don’t have much for you. All three were certainly better than they were in Friday’s disaster, but didn’t get a chance to really air the ball out. The biggest longball play of the day came in 7-on-7s when Carson Wentz aired it out to a diving Josh Huff, who made a great grab. Huff did have a glaring drop today, though.

Bradford had a really nice pass to Chris Givens during 11-on-11s. Bradford also had a great pass – of about 45 yards – to Xavier Rush, who dropped what should have been a touchdown.

• Trey Burton is the forgotten tight end. Yes, he’s third on the depth chart but Brent Celek isn’t getting any younger and Burton is showing some real pass-catching ability this training camp, especially for someone with just three career receptions. He made a great catch on a high ball today.

• It looks like Jordan Matthews’ struggles catching the ball are well behind him. He’s been very solid this summer. He made a few great catches early. On one, he leaped up and snagged the ball around Jordan Hicks and Malcolm Jenkins. A few minutes later, he made another good catch on the sideline.

• Wentz used a hard count to draw off the defense in 11-on-11s. Hard counts. Remember them?

• Earlier this week, Reuben Frank wrote about Wendell Smallwood and that despite his small physical stature, he plays big (see story). Well, we saw it on Saturday. In the open field, instead of trying to go around Jalen Mills, Smallwood lowered his shoulder and tried to go through him. That’s a nice way to start the practices in pads.

• As the pads went on, Blake Countess’ helmet cam was gone, but one appeared on Chase Daniel. It looks like the Eagles are going to keep testing these things out this training camp. Here’s what the camera looked like when it was on Countess:

• Tomorrow’s practice at 10 a.m. will be open and free for all fans at the Linc. No tickets required, just show up for first-come, first-serve seating. Fans can park in K Lot starting at 7 a.m. and gates open at 8 a.m. Enter on 11th street or Darien Street entrances.

What might you see? Well, things are getting a little feistier now that the players are able to hit each other.

When will they start getting under each other’s skin?

“Maybe tomorrow,” Curry said with a smile. “You never know when. You never know who’s having that hot, sweaty, bad day. You just never know. That’s the beauty of training camp."

Pros, cons and likely prospects of a Vince Velasquez trade with Rangers

Pros, cons and likely prospects of a Vince Velasquez trade with Rangers

Vince Velasquez just turned 24 in June.

He's under team control for the next five years and won't start making a lot of money (in baseball terms) until about 2020.

He has a big fastball that averages 93.7 mph, the 10th-best velocity of any NL starting pitcher.

He can be really, really good at times — the 16-strikeout shutout of the Padres, the 10-strikeout game against the Marlins, scoreless performances against the Mets, Indians and Diamondbacks.

And even when he's not at his best, like Friday night in Atlanta, Velasquez can succeed because his stuff is that good. He's made 18 starts this season and allowed two runs or fewer 11 times.

All of these things make him valuable to the Phillies. And all of these things make him attractive to every other team in the majors.

It doesn't seem likely that the Phils will ultimately pull the trigger and trade Velasquez to the Rangers, who are in "deep discussions" with the Phils on a deal, according to CSNPhilly.com's Jim Salisbury (see story). But Texas has such an intriguing group of prospects that it makes sense for the Phillies to listen.

Velasquez, for all of his strengths, has not proven yet that he can be a durable, 180- to 200-inning starting pitcher. He's never even reached 125 innings at any level in the minors. There have been numerous games this season in which his pitch count has soared — either because of a lack of control, nibbling around the plate or a lot of foul balls. The result has been some early exits. That was a knock on Velasquez when he was in Houston and he hasn't yet fully outgrown it.

That's why it could make sense for the Phils to trade him. Perhaps they believe they'd be selling high on a guy who's shown so much talent and promise but not the type of consistency of a No. 1 or No. 2 starter.

Obviously, it makes sense to move him only if the return is strong. And the Rangers could certainly offer a strong package if they decide Velasquez is their guy.

The names you'll see thrown around a lot as the Aug. 1 trade deadline approaches are power hitting third baseman Joey Gallo, infielder Jurickson Profar and outfielders Lewis Brinson and Nomar Mazara.

Mazara is a pipe dream. The Rangers refused to include him in last summer's Cole Hamels trade, and he's only increased his worth to them this season by hitting .282/.334/.417 with 12 homers and 41 RBIs for a first-place team. He'll be a top-three finisher for AL Rookie of the Year. It's almost impossible to envision the Rangers trading away a valuable piece of their major-league roster for Velasquez. It would be a wash, at best.

Gallo and Profar are more realistic targets for the Phillies in a Velasquez trade. Gallo, 22, has some of the best raw power in the minors, true grade-80 power. The 6-foot-5, left-handed hitter bashed 23 homers in the minors last season, 42 the year before and 40 the year before that. Initially, that power translated to the majors when Gallo was called up last June. He hit homers in each of his first two games and had five in his first 50 at-bats before pitchers adjusted. So far in 136 big-league plate appearances, he's hit .192/.287/.408 with seven homers and 63 strikeouts.

The whiffs will always be a part of Gallo's game. To me, he has Brewers' first baseman Chris Carter written all over him — a lot of homers, a lot of strikeouts, low batting average. Gallo could be better than Carter because he plays a more important position and will hopefully be more than a .217 career hitter like Carter, but you also have to keep in mind that the Phillies already have Maikel Franco at third base. If Gallo was traded here, he'd likely play either first base or left field.

It's hard to say right now whether or not Gallo is more valuable or a better fit for the Phils than Velasquez. Usually, it makes sense to go with the everyday player over the pitcher who can make an impact at most twice a week. But, as stated above, Velasquez can give you six quality innings even when he's not "on." He has the most upside of any of the Phillies' young starting pitchers, including Aaron Nola.

Profar, who is somehow still just 23 after years atop prospect lists and a few injuries, would seem to be a better fit. He's a multi-dimensional player who has impressed scouts for years for a reason. He can play every infield position in addition to left field, he has the look of a .300 hitter, and his power is developing.

A switch-hitter, Profar has hit .301/.356/.440 for the Rangers in 181 plate appearances this season with four doubles, two triples and five homers. It's been a while since his last full season in the minors, but in 2012 he hit .281 with an .820 OPS, 14 homers and 62 RBIs as a 19-year-old everyday shortstop at Double A.

The opinion here is that Profar will be a better major-league hitter than Phillies top prospect J.P. Crawford.

There is, however, a vast financial difference between Profar and Gallo. Profar will go to salary arbitration in 2017, 2018 and 2019 before becoming a free agent. Gallo, like Velasquez, won't start making meaningful baseball money until around 2020.

But a team like the Phillies that has deep pockets and so much open payroll space moving forward should be more concerned with receiving the right player than playing the cost benefit game.

Another thing to consider here is that the Rangers need Profar. He's been playing every day for them and playing well at second base, third base and shortstop. He played Friday night in left field. He's started a bunch of games at first base, too, and figures to get some more reps there with Prince Fielder out for the season and Mitch Moreland having just an OK year.

Brinson is another name to keep in mind. A right-handed centerfielder, he was Texas' first-round pick in 2012. He had a terrific year at three different levels in 2015, hitting a combined .332/.403/.601 with 31 doubles, eight triples and 20 homers. He's struggled this season at Double A Frisco, hitting .227 with a .692 OPS in a hitter-friendly environment.

The Rangers also have some other pieces who could help the Phillies, but you'd figure any deal for Velasquez would have to include one of these three. Otherwise, it just makes no sense to even entertain the idea of a trade.

And really, if the Rangers are willing to include one or more of those three young players, they could get any team in the majors to listen to an offer for a starting pitcher. A package centered around two of them might be enough for Chris Sale. Maybe one of them could net Atlanta's Julio Teheran. Velasquez is really good, but so are the combinations of trade packages the Rangers can put together.

Eagles Injury Update: Nolan Carroll, Rueben Randle leave practice early

Eagles Injury Update: Nolan Carroll, Rueben Randle leave practice early

The Eagles' first day of training camp in pads wasn’t without some minor casualties.

Cornerback Nolan Caroll left early with a sore ankle and wideout Rueben Randle left early with cramps. Both are considered day-to-day.

After Carroll left the field, Eric Rowe got some first-team reps with the defense. Randle was having a very good day, standing out with a one-handed grab, before going inside.

Undrafted wide receiver Marcus Johnson, from Texas, went inside early with a quad injury. Corner Ron Brooks (cramps) also went in early.

The Eagles started the day without starting right guard Brandon Brooks (hamstring) and starting running back Ryan Mathews (ankle). Neither have practiced since the whole team got together for the first full-squad on Thursday.

Darren Sproles continues to get most of the first-team reps at running back, with Kenjon Barner filling in. Veteran Stefen Wisniewksi has been taking Brooks’ spot at right guard.