Inside the Eagles: Chip Kelly may turn more to his tight ends
Chip Kelly likes tight ends, but perhaps not as much as he likes the mismatches good ones can create.
Jeremy Maclin's season-ending knee injury will hinder the offense, but the Eagles say they are confident in their alternatives. Not because Kelly has starting-caliber wide receivers in reserve, but because he has depth at running back and tight end.
In terms of the vertical game, however, it is the Eagles' tight ends - the top three being Brent Celek, Zach Ertz, and James Casey - who should see the ball more.
Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said Sunday that skill-position repetitions will be based on which players are the most productive. But the deck already had been stacked in favor of the tight ends.
Kelly has made it fairly clear that he will involve tight ends more fully into the offense. Even though he already had the above-average Brent Celek and serviceable Clay Harbor on the roster, Kelly acquired James Casey via free agency and drafted Zach Ertz in the second round.
He has seven tight ends on the roster, one more than tight end-loving Bill Belichick has in New England, and several more than Andy Reid typically carried during Eagles training camps.
But too much can be made of positional designations. If it were up to Kelly, his players probably wouldn't be assigned positions. His seven tight ends are similarly sized, but each has different skills.
Take the top three: Celek catches balls over the middle and is also a capable blocker. Ertz lined up at almost every spot at Stanford. Casey is also a jack-of-all-trades, having played fullback, H-back, and tight end with the Texans.
"We're all different players even though we're playing the same position," Casey said.
Imagine all three lining up at various spots on one play. It could create a mismatch nightmare for opposing defenses. Though it is unlikely Kelly often will call three-tight-end sets, as he said he would in April after Ertz was drafted, the scheme will be in the playbook.
"I think it was the plan all along," Celek said. "He likes tight ends."
On any given offensive play, Kelly has five skill-position spots to fill. And if Celek, Ertz, and Casey prove to be three of his better ball-catchers, then there is no reason to believe he won't use all three.
More often than not, it will be as a duo. He could line up Celek at one slot and Ertz at the other, and easily run or pass out of that set. If the defense stayed in its base mode, then either one or both would line up opposite a linebacker, in which case Kelly would pass.
If the defense switched to its nickel package and one tight end was opposite a defensive back, then Kelly would call a run right at him. It's just one of many possible sets. Casey can run out of the backfield. Ertz can split wide. The two can line up side-by-side.
"You can't manufacture [tight ends], but if you can find them, it does create a lot of problems," Kelly said in April, "because they do have the athleticism to run with defensive backs, but they're bigger than them. Sometimes in more instances, they're more athletic than linebackers."
NFL teams have used mismatch-creating tight ends dating back to and even before the Colts' John Mackey.
But with the ascendance of the passing game in the last decade there has been even greater opportunity for tight ends to put up wide receiver numbers. Kelly has another theory.
"I think a lot of it has to do with basketball," he said. "Those guys are maybe mid-major Division I power forwards that really aren't the top echelon of college basketball in a power forward spot, so more are gravitating toward football."
Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates, future Hall of Famers, are prime examples. The Saints' Jimmy Graham is a more recent example.
In 2010, the same year Graham was drafted, Belichick spent two of his first six picks on tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. A year later, the Patriots were in the Super Bowl after the two tight ends combined for 169 catches for 2,237 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Ertz, who played small forward in high school, said he was recruited by Ivy League schools to play hoops.
"When I first got to Stanford, they wanted me to play both, but Coach [Jim] Harbaugh said no," Ertz said. "So football was the way to go."
Contact Jeff McLane at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @Jeff_McLane.