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.

Sixers-Warriors 5 things: At home, can Sixers hang with NBA's best again?

Sixers-Warriors 5 things: At home, can Sixers hang with NBA's best again?

The Sixers (22-36) host the NBA-best Golden State Warriors (49-9) at the Wells Fargo Center (7 p.m./CSN, CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports app).

Let's take a closer look at the matchup:

1. Bummer at the buzzer
Apparently one good last-second shot deserves another.

The Sixers stormed back from a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter against the New York Knicks on Saturday. Jahlil Okafor capped off his monster night with what appeared to be the game-winner at the time when he scored in the lane with nine seconds remaining.

That was until Carmelo Anthony drained a clutch jumper over Robert Covington with 0.3 ticks left on the clock to give the Knicks a 110-109 victory. Call it payback for T.J. McConnell's buzzer-beater against New York last month.

While the Sixers didn't get the win, they had to be pleased with some of the efforts they received on the second night of a back-to-back set. 

Okafor finished with 28 points and 10 rebounds. Covington had 20 points and 10 rebounds, while Dario Saric added 19 points and 15 boards.

2. So much splashing
The Sixers will need those type of performances and then some if they hope to keep up with this potent Warriors team.

In case you've been lost at sea since the summer, former league MVP Kevin Durant bolted Oklahoma City for Golden State in free agency to turn the "Splash Brothers" of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson into an entire splash family.

Already dominant offensively, the Warriors have been even better this season with Durant. They rank No. 1 in a slew of offensive categories, including points per game (118.2), field goal percentage (50.0), assists per game (31.0), fastbreak points per game (23.5), offensive rating (114.1) and true shooting percentage (60.4).

If that weren't enough, Durant's length has also impacted the Warriors' defense too. They are first in the league in steals (9.6), blocks (6.7) and points off turnovers (19.2) per game.

Simply put, the Warriors are scary good. 

3. The wild card
Every family has that one person that you're just not sure about at times. They can make gatherings the best night ever or a downright miserable experience.

Enter Draymond Green. 

Green has been on the miserable side of the Warriors' gatherings lately. He shot 1 of 10 for five points and was benched for long stretches in Golden State's win over Brooklyn on Saturday. In the game prior to that against the L.A. Clippers, he picked up a technical foul, trash talked Paul Pierce and went to his preferred kick move on Blake Griffin.

Overall, Green has been his usual solid self on the court. He's averaging 10.0 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.1 assists a night while providing lockdown defense.

The Sixers are fully aware of Green's versatility. The veteran forward averaged a triple-double against them in the two meetings last season with 11.5 points, 12.0 rebounds and 10.0 assists.

It will be interesting to see Green lock horns all game with the surging Saric.

4. Injuries
Joel Embiid (knee), Tiago Splitter (calf), Ben Simmons (foot) Jerryd Bayless (wrist) are out for the Sixers.

The Warriors have no players listed on the injury report.

5. This and that
• The Sixers have lost six straight games to the Warriors.

• With their 112-95 win over the Nets on Saturday, the Warriors became the first team to clinch a playoff berth. It marked the earliest a team has clinched a postseason spot since the 1985-86 Boston Celtics.

• Covington is averaging 17.0 points and 7.6 rebounds per game in February.

• Thompson averaged 36.0 points on 54.7 percent shooting from the field and 45.8 percent from three-point range against the Sixers last season.

Brandon Manning suspended 2 games for hit on Penguins' Jake Guentzel

Brandon Manning suspended 2 games for hit on Penguins' Jake Guentzel

VOORHEES, N.J. -- Flyers defenseman Brandon Manning was suspended two games for his illegal hit to Pittsburgh's Jake Guentzel during Saturday's 4-2 loss in the Stadium Series game at Heinz Field.
 
Manning's shoulder made contact with Guentzel's head.
 
Manning wasn't surprised and even admitted to reporters that he fully expected "one or two" games because he hit a player who didn't have control of the puck yet.
 
Strangely, there was no penalty on the play for interference, yet the NHL's explanation on Monday afternoon specifically cited "interference" as the reason for the suspension.
 
This is Manning's first NHL suspension.
 
The hearing was conducted on the phone Monday with Stephane Quintal, senior vice-president of NHL Player Safety. Manning will forfeit $10,833.34 in salary.
 
"It was late," Manning said of the hit. "He didn't touch the puck after it hit his skate. Which I thought he was going to do. They do their whole breakdown by time frame."
 
Manning said he caught Guentzel's shoulder first, then his head "on the follow through" because Guentzel is shorter than him.  The 6-foot-1 Manning has two inches on Guentzel.
 
Guentzel, who had two assists in the game, was not injured.
 
"Looking at it, [the hit] is a little late," Manning admitted. "I thought he was going to touch the puck. Usually, when a puck hits your skate, you pick it up, and he kinda left it ... The hard part is, there was no penalty called on it."
 
Manning said he had to make a hit or face an odd-man rush.
 
"There were two players there and if I don't play my guy there, it’s a 3-on-1 the other way," he said. "You're giving up scoring chances. Fortunately, he wasn't hurt. He finished the game and that's always the good thing."
 
Mark Streit, sitting on the bench at the time, said he saw the hit and was shocked at the suspension.
 
"It was a great hit," Streit said. "You look at the replay and everything looks different. You can slow down every hit and talk about it. I guess it was a little late …"
 
Manning's suspension likely means Michael Del Zotto will play against Colorado on Tuesday.
 
Flyers coach Dave Hakstol said Manning has been a "solid piece" for the club this season.
 
"He brings that physical edge, he's been reliable, and he's been a staple for our lineup," Hakstol said. "That's a hole we'll have to fill over next couple of games here."
 
Manning will also miss Thursday's game against Florida.