Counting Down the Eagles’ Offseason Needs: No. 9, Tight End

Counting Down the Eagles’ Offseason Needs: No. 9, Tight End

Free agency is right around the corner, and the draft will be here before you know it. With the Philadelphia Eagles’ offseason in full swing, we’re examining where the roster stands at each position, counting down based on team need. Check out the first installment on running backs.

The Philadelphia Eagles could literally change nothing this offseason and they would still enter 2014 with the deepest, if not the best trio of tight ends in the NFL. What could possibly be of need here?

It’s not certain all three will be back.’s Geoff Mosher opened a can of worms last week when he suggested the Birds could cut ties with James Casey, the expensive third tight end whose playing time didn’t match the investment. Casey agreed to a three-year, $12 million free-agent contract last March, but wound up lining up on less than 20 percent of the offense’s snaps.

The word on Casey when he arrived from the Houston Texans was versatility.’s Jimmy Kempski described the 29-year-old as a “Swiss army knife” who could move around the formation, block or run routes and contribute on special teams.

Two things happened.

First, Casey’s ability as a pass-catcher was greatly exaggerated. He once set an NCAA single-season record for tight ends with 111 receptions and 1,329 yards at Rice—the former still stands—but those historic numbers are more than his combined totals (69 REC, 783) after five years in the NFL. He simply is not a playmaker with the ball in his hands at this level.

Second, the Eagles selected Zach Ertz with the 35th-overall pick in the draft about a month later, which naturally ate into Casey’s playing time. Now the question is should the organization continue to pay roughly $4 million per season to somebody with such a small role in the offense?

The decision is a little more complicated than a simple “yes” or “no.” Mosher says $2 million of that is guaranteed, so that slashes the savings from Casey’s release in half—not to mention whatever the club pays a replacement.

Not only that, his playing time actually increased significantly as 2013 went along. Casey saw action on eight or fewer offensive snaps in all but two of Philadelphia’s first 11 games according to Pro Football Focus. Over the final six games however, the snap counts jumped to 11, 22, 6, 30, 28 and 11—the outlier being a shootout against Minnesota.

So Casey absolutely has a role in the offense, even if more is typically expected for that kind of money. Let’s not ignore his value as a reserve and on special teams, either.

If the Eagles stood to create real cap space, it might make sense to move on, but is the extra million or so in walking-around money worth dropping Casey for?

Ertz so good

I’m convinced Riley Cooper will not be an Eagle soon after free agency opens on March 11 due in large part to budgeting constraints. Assuming the club re-signs the infinitely more-talented Jeremy Maclin, they should have close to $20 million committed to Mac and DeSean Jackson in 2014 alone. How much can one team realistically spend on its wide receivers?

The other reason is Zach Ertz. As long as Ertz’s development continues into next season as anticipated, the increase in two-tight end sets will naturally lessen the need for three high-price receivers. In fact, the diminishing role of the slot receiver is already underway.

Jason Avant was ceding snaps to tight ends increasingly as the year went along. According to PFF’s snap-charting numbers, Avant was on the field for 70 percent or more in each of the Eagles’ first eight games. The same was true in only three of the final nine contests.

Ertz’s playing time rose accordingly, as did his production. In the month of December, the Stanford product posted 15 receptions for 195 yards and three touchdowns, by far his best stretch of the season.

That’s only scratching the surface. Ertz could be the next in the line of modern tight ends who can line up traditionally on the line of scrimmage, or split out wide or in the slot. When 6’5”, 249 pounds, 4.6 40 is standing outside the numbers, the defense has to cover him with a safety. It’s a matchup nightmare.

Ertz finished his rookie season with 36 receptions, 469 yards and four touchdowns. If he can make the leap in year two, he’s a potential 1,000-yard receiver.

Brent Celek isn’t going anywhere for awhile

It was genuinely surprising listening to fans and analysts last offseason suggest Brent Celek might be on the roster bubble or a cap casualty. It will not be surprising when the conversation inevitably comes up again in 2014, but it will be no less baffling.

The casual observer will view Celek’s production as the worst it’s been since he took over as the fulltime starter for Philadelphia in 2009 and take it as a sign the soon-to-be 29-year-old is in decline. That sentiment couldn’t be further from the truth.

True, Celek’s volume was down—32 receptions for 502 yards—but he made the targets he had count. His 15.7 yards per catch were 15th-highest in the NFL, second only to Vernon Davis among tight ends, indicating plenty of big plays were made when the opportunity presented itself. Celek’s six touchdowns were also two short of a career high.

Furthermore, looking purely at statistics ignores where Celek’s greatest impact was felt—in the running game.

According to metrics site Pro Football Focus, Celek graded out as the No. 1 run-blocking tight end in the NFL this year among players who were in for at least 50 percent of offensive snaps. Even if were to account for all tight ends, including blocking specialists, Celek’s cumulative score ranked third.

Celek has become so adept at blocking, Chip Kelly refers to him like he’s the sixth member of the offensive line.

71, 65, 62, 79, 69, 87. We've got some guys that can block, and we've got a very, very talented running back. .…  This whole deal is a personnel‑driven thing, and we've got some really talented guys on the offensive line. We've got a really talented tight end when it comes to blocking.

Celek is set to make $4 million next season, which actually is a reduction from his cap hit in 2013. That number grows to $4.8 million in ’15 and $5M in the final year, which aren’t bad numbers as long as he continues to play at his current level.

Previously: No. 10, Running Back

Flyers-Sabres 5 things: Forget about Monday's final result

Flyers-Sabres 5 things: Forget about Monday's final result

Flyers vs. Sabres
7:30 p.m. on CSN, Pregame Live starts at 6:30

After a hard-luck 3-1 loss in Montreal to the Canadiens on Monday, the Flyers (2-3-1) return home Tuesday to the Wells Fargo Center to face the Buffalo Sabres (1-2-1) for the first time this season.

The Sabres are struggling early on this year, so Tuesday night could be a prime opportunity for the Flyers to get back on the winning side of things.

Let’s take a closer look at the matchup.

1. It’s a new day
Despite the result, the fact of the matter is the Flyers played a very good road game on Monday in Montreal against the Habs. Shots on goal were just about even (Montreal held a 33-32 advantage) and the Flyers had excellent opportunities to tie late in the game, but a fully healthy Carey Price had other ideas. Steve Mason was great with 31 saves, many of the difficult variety, and he had no chance on Brendan Gallagher’s winning deflection late in the third. It was seesaw battle and the Habs wound up on top when the final buzzer sounded. It goes that way sometimes.

But Tuesday is a new day, and the Flyers have a chance strike right back against the Sabres. Forget Monday’s final result. If the Flyers play the way they did Monday, they’re going to win plenty of games.

“Overall we played a pretty good game,” Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said after Monday’s loss. “Certainly we can do better, obviously not coming out with the points. We’ve got to turn the page real quick and get ready to go for a home game tomorrow night some 19 to 20 hours from now.”

Even though Monday night’s result is still fresh, sometimes it’s good to get right back out there and try and keep the momentum of strong play going.

And the Flyers will get some reinforcements on the blue line Tuesday as Radko Gudas will return from his six-game suspension and be in the lineup. No word yet on who will sit.

2. Can’t stop Jake
Move aside Matt Read and Wayne Simmonds. Jake Voracek is the new hottest Flyer.

With his slick deflection on Monday, Voracek now has three goals in his last two games and is riding a four-game point streak. As matter of fact, he has a point in all but one of the Flyers’ six games this season. He’s posted three goals and five assists for eight points so far, which is good to tie for fourth most in the NHL in the early going.

Perhaps most encouraging about Voracek’s play early on is the fact that he’s shooting the puck frequently. A natural passer, the 27-year-old forward has 21 shots on goal so far this year, which ties him for 10th most in the league. He has a nice shot when he wants to use it, and he’s certainly using it this year.

Considering Voracek’s struggles last season, it has to feel good for him to get off to this kind of solid start. And it has to be reassuring for Hakstol and the Flyers. The second line with Voracek, Sean Couturier and Travis Konecny is playing well as a unit, too.

3. What’s up with Buffalo?
Things got off on the wrong foot, almost literally, for the Sabres the day before the regular season started when stud sophomore and franchise pivot Jack Eichel went down during practice with a high ankle sprain. He’s likely out for about another month or so.

And things haven’t gotten much better as the Sabres have scored just 11 goals in four games this season. Those 11 goals are tied for second least in the entire league and six of them came in one game in Edmonton. It’s tough to judge the Sabres based on the small sample size of games they’ve played so far, but it’s not a good sign when more than half of a team’s goals come in one game.

Starting goalie Robin Lehner is out of Tuesday’s game with an undisclosed illness. Backup Anders Nilsson will make his first start of the regular season. Nilsson has played in three games against the Flyers in his career and owns a 2-0-0 record against them with a 2.26 goals-against average and .906 save percentage.

4. Keep an eye on
Flyers: Brayden Schenn has had the Sabres’ number with six goals against them in 14 career games against them. That said, Schenn is still trying to find his footing this season as he’s pointless in three games since returning from his three-game suspension to open the season. Tuesday could be a perfect time for the Flyers’ 24-year-old forward to have the breakout game he’s been looking for.

Sabres: Buffalo’s offense begins and ends with Ryan O’Reilly. He leads the Sabres with three goals this season and is tied for the team lead in points with five. He’s got nine points (six goals and three assists) in 10 career meetings with the Flyers.

5. This and that
• The Flyers went 1-1-1 last season against the Sabres in three meetings. The Sabres did win in Philadelphia in overtime last October.

• The Sabres enter Philadelphia on the end of a four-game road trip that saw them tour Western Canada. But the Sabres have had four days off while the Flyers played Monday night in Montreal and had to travel home.

• The Flyers haven’t lost to the Sabres at home in regulation in the regular season since March 5, 2011.

• The Flyers have been lethal in the second period this season, as 13 of their 20 goals have been scored in the middle frame.

• He may not have found the back of the net yet this year, but Claude Giroux comes into Tuesday’s matchup on a five-game point streak with six assists over that stretch.

Watch: The Phillie Phanatic trashes ESPN, Skip Bayless

Watch: The Phillie Phanatic trashes ESPN, Skip Bayless

The Phillie Phanatic is just like you and me. He hates being stuck in an office.

ESPN posted the below video of the Phanatic being forced to wait around an office for some sort of interview and an idle Phanatic is a mischievous Phanatic.

He starts out by trashing former ESPNer Skip Bayless, finds some Mets' swag to desecrate, and finishes off by going all Office Space on a desk chair.

It's fun for the whole family.

Not sure why the ESPN people didn't just let him post for the Body Issue like the people over at Sports Illustrated.