For the last four seasons, the Eagles have had the same three tight ends on their roster. Other positions have churned. Zach Ertz, Brent Celek, and Trey Burton were part of an impenetrable fraternity, with one teammate leaving and no one joining the trio that won a Super Bowl together.
This is the offseason when that will likely change. Burton is a free agent and could command a big contract elsewhere. Celek, 33, will count $5 million against the salary cap next season. He said this week that he wants to continue playing, although that would be an expensive price tag for the Eagles’ longest-tenured player.
Even if Celek is back, the Eagles will likely add a tight end in April’s draft or free agency next week. Top executive Howie Roseman and coach Doug Pederson noted the quality of the tight end draft class last week at the combine. For the first time since the Eagles released James Casey in 2015, the faces will change on the Eagles’ tight end depth chart.
“We hope everybody is back. Probably not going to happen, the reality of it. Would love to have everybody back,” Pederson said about the tight ends. “Sometimes in this business you’re going to have to make tough decisions one way or the other. I’ve been here and coached with coach Reid when Celek was here…and his value to what we’ve done offensively and special teams. We’ll cross that bridge, obviously, when we get there. But for now we just continue to build and add talent. This is a good tight end draft this year, there’s some guys, so we’re going to add talent there, too. No position is exempt. There’s going to be some tough decisions probably made this spring.”
The Eagles only have six draft picks at this point, but they’d be wise to invest one in a tight end. They haven’t spent a draft pick on a tight end since Ertz in 2013. Burton came as an undrafted rookie in 2014. They’ve continued to try to find a tight end that could stick on the undrafted free agent market, and Billy Brown showed promise on practice squad last year. But the draft offers the surest pipeline to young talent.
This year’s class does not have a headliner expected to be a surefire top 15 pick, but there are potential first-rounders and a deep class with projected starters. South Carolina’s Hayden Hurst, South Dakota State’s Dallas Goedert, and Penn State’s Mike Gesicki are among those atop the class.
No tight end helped himself more during combine testing than Gesicki, whose athletic numbers put him in a class of his own. The 6-foot-5, 247-pound Manahawkin, N.J., native was the top tight end in almost every category at the combine — the 40-yard dash (4.54 seconds), vertical leap (41.5), broad jump (10 feet, 9 inches), three-cone drill (6.76 seconds), 20-yard shuttle (4.1 seconds), and 60-yard shuttle (11.33 seconds). He was second in the bench press. Those athletic numbers complemented steady production during the past two seasons for the Nittany Lions, including 57 catches for 563 yards and nine touchdowns.
Gesicki is viewed as more of a receiver than a blocker, so he must improve to help in the run. He wanted to prove to coaches at the combine that he’ll be a willing blocker. But for a team like the Eagles that plays multiple formations and two-tight end sets, it would be challenge for defenses to cover Ertz and Gesicki in the passing game.
“There’s a lot of questions in my blocking – Do I even want to do it? Do I take pride in it? – and the answer is, ‘Yes!’,” Gesicki told reporters last week. “In high school, all I played was wide receiver. Got to college, went in on some passing downs as a true freshman, wasn’t really a part of the run game. So in terms of run blocking, I’ve only really been doing it two-and-half, three years. I’m going to get better each rep. That’s what I want a team to trust and believe in me. If I can get one team out there [to think], ‘This guy’s an unbelievable asset in our pass game, he’s going to improve each and every day to help us out in the run game, that’s a team I want to be a part of.”
Gesicki, who first aspired to be a basketball player growing up in South Jersey, moved from quarterback to receiver in high school and realized that “I like catching touchdowns.” He had Patriot League teams interested in him for basketball, and his first sniff from Penn State actually came from the volleyball coach. He thinks his basketball and volleyball background will help in the NFL – especially on third downs and in the red zone.
“In basketball, going up to get a rebound or going up to attack the rim or dunk on somebody – whatever it is – and then in volleyball, going up for a spike, getting up to the highest point, the hand-eye coordination, all those things those games have to offer, I’ve translated over to football,” Gesicki said.
The other tight ends in the class also could intrigue the Eagles. Hurst, a 24-year-old former professional baseball player, was the top tight end in the SEC last season. Goedert, who played in the same conference as Carson Wentz, has been compared to Ertz. Oklahoma’s Mark Andrews and Indiana’s Ian Thomas also intrigue in a draft class that the Eagles will closely examine. Because after going four years without adding a tight end in the draft, they’ll be in position to add one this spring.