Eagles' tight-end depth could lead to changes

Eagles' tight-end depth could lead to changes
January 21, 2014, 12:45 pm
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Tight end James Casey had just three catches in 15 games in 2013. (USA Today Images)

Last March, after the Eagles signed fullback/tight end James Casey to a three-year deal, coach Chip Kelly discussed the NFL’s trend of two-tight end offenses and suggested that the tandem of Casey and Brent Celek could be the foundation of his first-year offense.

And then came Zach Ertz.

Kelly plucked the Stanford tight end in the second round last April, 35th overall, and further gloated about the matchup problems created by multiple tight end formations. In the preseason, Kelly unveiled the rare four tight-end formation more than once.

Surprisingly, when the season opened, Kelly’s offense lacked the tight end emphasis seen in the preseason. He leaned heavily on 11 personnel -- three receivers, one tight end -- with Celek and Ertz subbing for each other. Casey, the crown jewel of the team’s offensive free-agent signings, barely sniffed the field. 

Casey played two snaps in the season opener, both kneel-downs, and just five in Week 2. He didn’t see an offensive snap in Week 3. Not until Week 9 did Casey get more than 10 offensive snaps and only twice for the whole season did he plays more snaps than Ertz.

Naturally, the perception that Casey wouldn’t see the next two years of his contract surfaced after the season, that he doesn’t fit the offense and that his price tag is too high for a third-string tight end. 

But it’s important to know two things when looking forward to the Eagles’ offense in 2014:

One, Kelly’s offense changed every year during his five seasons at Oregon, always adapting to different personnel.

Two, the economics of the NFL guarantee that Kelly’s offense will be forced to adapt going forward.

Don’t assume anything about 2014 based on 2013’s results.

Ertz already foreshadowed a change in offensive design as he cleaned out his locker two days after the Eagles were bounced out of the playoffs in the first round by the Saints.

Ertz said Kelly’s decision to start the season with more 11 personnel than 12 personnel (two tight ends, two receivers) stemmed from the rookie’s slow start. Ertz missed almost all of the spring camps because of the NFL rule that prevents players from attending pro camps before graduation, and then he labored through some drops in the preseason.

“To be fair, I didn’t have best last two preseason games,” Ertz said, “and I think that’s probably one of the things that probably steered them toward the three receiver sets, especially in the beginning.”

As Ertz developed and fine-tuned his blocking and three-point stances, the offense shifted toward tight end-centric formations. Wideout Jeff Maehl, who averaged nearly 15 snaps per game from Week 4 to Week 9, never logged more than eight snaps in any of the last seven games. On the flip side, Casey played 22 snaps against the Lions on Dec. 8, then a season high, before getting 30 two weeks later against the Bears and 28 more in the season finale.

“It changed slightly,” Kelly admitted in his final press conference. “There was a lot of things James really could do that added some input to what we were doing on the offensive side of the ball.”

Kelly then touted the development of Riley Cooper, who broke out for 835 yards and eight TDs, and the blocking of Jason Avant contributing to an offense that set a franchise record for points scored and offensive yards.

That’s where economics come into play.

With Cooper and Maclin slated to be free agents, it’s unlikely that both will be back. The hunch here is that Cooper walks in free agency and Maclin comes back under a one-year deal. Avant has one year left on his deal but underwent a major drop off in catches and receiving yards and isn’t much of a downfield threat.

With Celek slated to make $4 million in 2014, Casey on the books for just under $4 million and Ertz on the books for about $1.2 million, it’s not feasible for the Eagles to have more than $9 million tied up in that position -- unless, of course, tight end is the focal point of Kelly’s offense in 2014 and the Eagles don’t intend on doling out big bucks to keep Cooper and Maclin.

On the surface, Casey would appear to be the odd man out if the Eagles were looking to reduce salaries, except that $2 million of his $3.95 million is guaranteed. The Eagles aren’t likely to pay Casey $2 million to catch passes somewhere else.

None of Celek’s $4 million is guaranteed, so the Eagles could ask him to restructure his contract or take a pay cut. They could also cut him at no cost, but that seems unlikely given that Kelly bends over backwards to heap praise on Celek at every opportunity.

Celek is signed through 2016 and his base salary increases each year, so 2014 is probably his last season for the Eagles regardless.

If they can retain Celek and Casey, Kelly can withstand the loss of Cooper or Maclin (or both) and rely on the draft to replenish the receiving corps.

Ertz came on as a field-stretcher in the second half of the season and Celek’s yards-after-catch average is one of his stronger points. Casey caught 33 passes in his final year with the Texans, so the potential to build on his 3-for-31 season with the Eagles is there.

Kelly’s flexible offense gives the front office a major advantage in contract negotiations. The Eagles won’t feel pressured into caving into a specific player’s contract demands.

“That's what football is all about,” Kelly said, “is finding out what your players are and then maximizing your abilities.”