State of the Eagles: Tight end
While the Eagles finish their offseason program, The Inquirer will exam each position. Today, tight ends.
State of the Eagles: Tight end
While the Eagles finish their offseason program with 10 organized team activities and a three-day mini-camp, The Inquirer will reset the team’s 90-man roster and look at each position heading into July’s training camp. Thursday was the offensive line. Here are the tight ends:
Projected current first team
Brent Celek (6-foot-4, 255 pounds), age 29, 8th season
Zach Ertz (6-foot-5, 250 pounds), age 23, 2nd season
The Eagles’ “base offense” is a two-tight end set (“12 personnel”), but the Eagles spent most of last with three receivers on the field (“11 personnel.”) Look for that to change this season, or at least for Zach Ertz to become a more prominent member of the offense.
Brent Celek returns as the top tight end. He’s a favorite of this coaching staff. Celek played 77 percent of the offensive snaps last season, and he had his best season yet as a blocker. Celek has honed that part of his game and he was a contributor to LeSean McCoy leading the NFL in rushing yards. Celek’s receiving numbers declined last season, though, and his 32 catches for 502 yards were the fewest in both categories since 2008. Celek caught six touchdowns, which was his most since 2009.
At 29, Celek is a reliable player. He’s not going to be a dynamic tight end, but that’s not what the Eagles expect him to be. He took to coach Chip Kelly’s sports science initiatives last season and was a poster boy for a veteran feeling fresh throughout the season. He makes $4 million, with a salary that jumps to $4.725 million in 2015 and $4.925 million in 2016. His future in Philadelphia beyond this season is a legitimate question, but there’s little doubt he’s a part of the Eagles’ offense this season.
Ertz’s 36 catches were the most of any tight end on the roster last season. He also had 469 yards and four touchdowns. But Ertz played only 41 percent of the offensive snaps. The Eagles are bullish on Ertz’s potential, and that could be fulfilled this season. He’s a natural route runner and pass catcher. His size is ideal for the position. He continues to develop in the Eagles’ offense.
Because of Stanford’s academic calendar, Ertz missed much of the offseason program last year. He now has a full spring in Philadelphia, which will be important for his progress. He’s a player to monitor during the next month.
Tight ends often take a major jump from the first season to the second season, and that could be the case with Ertz. There have been 19 Pro Bowl-tight ends in the previous 19 seasons. They averaged 30 catches for 334 yards and three touchdowns in their rookie seasons, and 56 catches for 649 yards and five touchdowns in their second seasons. The Pro Bowl might be tough for Ertz to crack, but he will become a more prominent player and will certainly play more than 41 percent of the snaps.
Projected second team
James Casey (6-3, 240), 29, 6th
Casey had a disappointing first season with the Eagles. He was signed on the first day of free agency and was expected to bring versatility to the Eagles’ offense, but he was mostly a special teams player. Casey played only 14 percent of the offensive snaps, although he took a bigger role on the team later in the season. Still, the Eagles paid good money for Casey – he was signed to a three-year, $12-million contract with more than $4 million guaranteed – and he never carved an offensive niche.
The Eagles kept Casey this year, guaranteeing his $3.985-million salary on the fifth day of the league year. It will be interesting to see what the coaching staff plans in his second season. Casey is a solid blocker who has experience as a fullback. He has decent speed and athleticism, and can be used in a variety of ways. One of the issues is the other offensive options. If Casey is on the field, who comes off? He plays special teams, so he has a clear role. He was also their emergency quarterback last season.
The Eagles kept four tight ends at times last season, but they could go deeper at running back or wide receiver if they keep only three on the roster.
Emil Igwenagu (6-2, 245), 25, 2nd; Trey Burton (6-2, 224), 22, rookie; Blake Annen (6-4, 247), 23, rookie
Igwenagu made the roster out of the preseason last year and was with the Eagles the entire season on either the active roster or practice squad. He was never active on Sundays, but he’s entering his third season in Philadelphia. Igweangu appeared to be the odd man out when the Eagles did not use fullbacks under Kelly, but the coaching staff liked his blocking and versatility. He brings a similar skill set as Casey: a hybrid fullback/tight end who can play special teams. Igwenagu should not be ruled out for the roster, but he will need the Eagles to keep four tight ends or for an injury to occur that opens up an opportunity.
The same could be said about Burton and Annen, who are undrafted free agents. Burton’s versatility will be worthwhile to watch. The Florida product played in 50 games for the Gators at quarterback, fullback, tight end, wide receiver, and kick coverage. He is slight for a tight end, but Kelly’s insistence on versatility is real. If he can prove valuable in a variety of ways, he can sneak on the roster. Burton’s candidacy is similar to Russell Shepard’s last season. Shepard earned consideration for the roster, but did not make the cut.
Annen was first-team all-AAC last season with Cincinnati. He reportedly ran a 4.41 40-yard dash at the Bearcats’ Pro Day after he was not invited to the combine. He can also block, but he went undrafted and must play his way into roster or practice squad consideration.