Note: This is the fifth part of an offseason overview of the Eagles roster entering free agency and the draft. You can also read about quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, and offensive linemen. Look for defense next week.
ON THE ROSTER
Under contract: TEs: Brent Celek, Zach Ertz, James Casey, Emil Igwenagu Specialists: Alex Henery (kicker), Jon Dorenbos (long snapper)
Free agents: Donnie Jones (punter)
Outlook: Let’s start with tight ends, which is a major position in coach Chip Kelly’s offense. Brent Celek played 77 percent of the offensive snaps this season. Zach Ertz played 41 percent of the offensive snaps. They played together for almost 20 percent of the team’s snaps. James Casey played 14 percent of the snaps. This shows how much the offense uses tight ends, and expect that number to continue to increase.
The Eagles still have a decision to make about the future of the position. Celek was the starter and was a valuable contributor, and he said throughout the season how much better his body felt with the help of Kelly’s sports science program. Celek had his fewest amount of yards and catches since 2008, but he was valuable as a run blocker for the NFL’s No. 1 rushing offense. In fact, Pro Football Focus ranked Celek as the No. 2 blocking tight end.
Celek, 29, is due $4 million this season. That’s why there’s discussion of his future in Philadelphia, but I would expect him back. Maybe there’s an adjusted number, although the team has cap space, and Celek presents value. Kelly and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur especially value Celek.
Still, look for Ertz to be the primary receiving tight end next season. Ertz, the 2013 second-round pick, finished with 36 catches for 469 yards and four touchdowns last season and improved as the season progressed. I wouldn’t surprised if those numbers doubled in 2014. Ertz, 23, is a developing player with Pro Bowl potential.
The Eagles did not anticipate drafting Ertz, which is one of the reasons they signed James Casey as a top target last March. Casey finished with just three catches for 31 yards, and had only 15 targets. The team likes Casey, even if he was not used as often as anticipated this season. Casey played more frequently later in the season as a blocker, and his versatility is valued by the team. His lack of playing time was more based on the roster numbers than on his skill set.
The team has a decision to make with zcasey. He’s due nearly $4 million, and it becomes guaranteed five days into the league year (March 16). That’s a big figure for a third tight end.
Emil Igwenagu, 24, spent the first six games last season on the active roster before going to the practice squad. He’s an able blocker who can fill the fullback role when needed, considering the Eagles don’t carry one. He can also play special teams. In that regard, Igwenagu is similar to Casey. He’ll need to play his way onto the roster for the third consecutive seasons.
At the specialist spots, expect Jon Dorenbos to return. He makes around $1 million, but that’s the contract they gave him last season for what’s an important role. The players Dorenbos snaps the ball for remain in question.
Punter Donnie Jones is a free agent, but he was one of the NFL’s most productive punters this season. Jones ranked first in Eagles history in single-season net punting average with 40.4 yards per punt, and third in gross punting average with 44.9 yards per punt. Expect the team to re-sign him. There’s mutual interest, although it will cost more than last season.
There are questions at kicker. Alex Henery, a 2011 fourth-round pick, had his worst season since joining the Eagles. Henery’s playoff game did not help his reputation, but it goes beyond the playoff game. Henery made only 82 percent of his field goals this season, and his kickoffs averaged 62.7 yards. Neither mark is where it should be, especially for a player drafted as high as he was. Henery set records for accuracy early in his career, and his resume should mean something. The team should not give up on him altogether, at least not yet. The Eagles did not have competition for Henery last season, but they’ll have, at the very least, another kicker in camp this year.
At tight end, the question is what they do with Casey, and maybe even Celek. Figuring out their situations will be the team’s first order of business. That would dictate the necessity at the position.
The top tight end on the market, and probably the top free agent on the market, is New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham. The Saints won’t let him leave, and are expected to use either use the franchise tag or sign him. I would not anticipate the Eagles being active for other starting tight ends on the market, whether it’s Baltimore’s Dennis Pitta, Green Bay’s Jermichael Finley, or Detroit’s Brandon Pettigrew. Baltimore’s Ed Dickson played for Kelly at Oregon, but that might not be an upgrade over what the Eagles already have on the roster.
The draft has a collection of intriguing tight ends. North Carolina’s Eric Ebron and Texas Tech’s Jace Amaro are expected first-round picks. Washington’s Austin Seferian-Jenkins has first-round talent, although he had off-the-field issues that will require teams to do extensive research. Notre Dame’s Troy Niklas is still developing a pass catcher, but has great size.
The tight end prospect I keep coming back to for the Eagles, based on the history and the value, is Colt Lyerla. The former Oregon tight end left the team in midseason, but he has all the tools a team could want in a tight end. He pled guilty to cocaine possession, so there's obviously a red flag with his name. No one in the NFL knows him better than the Eagles because Kelly recruited him and the team's support staff is familiar with him. They’ll know how, or if, he would transition to the NFL. His stock has plummeted, but he’s the type of high-risk player worth exploring, if the coaching staff feels comfortable in him. Lyerla is 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds and is the type of athlete, like Ertz, that could line up at tight end or receiver.
This is not a connection based entirely on Oregon. Similar to selecting Bryce Brown or Damaris Johnson, the Eagles try to identify talented players who slip for reasons beyond what's seen on the field. In some cases, like Cliff Harris, it does not work. It's all about understanding the risk. If any team would know Lyerla, though, it's the Eagles.
On special teams, expect Jones to return. If he doesn’t, the top free agent punters are Pat McAfee and Zoltan Mesko. Memphis’ Tom Hornsey won the Ray Guy Award and is among the top punters in the draft.
At kicker, Seattle’s Steven Hauschka is the top free agent, although he’s expected to return to the Super Bowl champions. San Francisco’s Phil Dawson, Indianapolis’ Adam Vinatieri, Arizona’s Jay Feely, and the Giants’ Josh Brown also had expiring deals. Kickers with good seasons tend to return to their former teams.
Rookie kickers are always risky. Texas’ Anthony Fera, a Penn State transfer, is among the top in the draft. Tulane’s Cairo Santos is a former Lou Groza award winner.