Eagles Wake-Up Call: Tight End Preview

Philadelphia Eagles TE Clay Harbor.We lead off today with a look at the Eagles’ tight end situation going into Week 1.

Let’s start with Brent Celek. He couldn’t have finished the 2011 season any stronger. Celek averaged just 19.2 yards per game in the first six last season, but that number jumped to 69.6 in the final 10. His catch rate (catches per targets) was 73 percent during that final 10-game stretch. Had he sustained that number for the entire season, Celek would have tied Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Gates for the top mark among tight ends with at least 50 targets.

Michael Vick built a chemistry with Celek, and the tight end earned the quarterback’s trust. He had six drops in the first nine games, but none in the final seven. Celek averaged a career-high 13.1  yards per reception and had 14 catches of 20+ yards, just one fewer than DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, both of whom finished with 15. Celek led the Eagles (and all NFL tight ends) in yards after the catch, finishing with 62 receptions for 811 yards and five touchdowns.

It’s also worth mentioning that he was playing injured and had TWO surgeries (hip and hernia) in the offseason. That only makes his 2011 performance even more impressive.

Given that he’s healthy now, Celek should be a monster in 2012, right? Well, let’s pump the brakes a little bit. One factor in getting Celek going last year was that he was kept in to block less. In the first five games, he blocked 29.9 percent of the time on pass plays, according to Pro Football Focus. In the final 11, just 23 percent of the time. The problem this year is that Jason Peters is out, and the Eagles coaching staff would be wise to give King Dunlap some help against some of the league’s top pass-rushers. That very well could mean Celek being used more as a blocker. He should still have a good season, but Celek may see a dip in targets (96 last season).

Clay Harbor, meanwhile, had a strange summer, but looks ready to contribute. Early in training camp, the Eagles showed interest in Visanthe Shiancoe and Jeremy Shockey, but ended up signing neither guy. Harbor, meanwhile, made a point to stay after practice everyday and catch an extra 50 balls. The work paid off as he caught everything thrown his way at Lehigh, and in the preseason.

Harbor played 33.5 percent of the offensive snaps last year (per PFF), up from 28.6 percent as a rookie. He was used as a run-blocker 56.1 percent of the time; a receiver 32 percent of the time; and a pass blocker 11.9 percent of the time. He got just 19 balls thrown his way all season and caught 13 of them for 163 yards.

Look for Harbor to have a bigger role in 2012. He has the skill set to be more of a contributor in the passing game. It might mean the Eagles using fewer 4-WR sets. It might mean fewer snaps for Jason Avant. Or it might mean Jackson coming off the field in the red zone, where he’s a non-factor. But Harbor should see a bump in playing time and targets in 2012.

WHAT YOU MISSED

Running back Dion Lewis is questionable for Sunday’s game, which could mean a bigger role for Bryce Brown.

We’ve been knocking out the position-by-position season previews. Get them all right here. Yesterday, Tim wrote about the quarterbacks, and I tackled the linebackers.

Everything you need to know about Sunday’s matchup in two posts. One details how the Browns’ offense matches up with the Eagles’ defense. And the other takes a look at the Birds’ offense vs. Cleveland’s D.

McManus and I offer up several Eagles season predictions that are sure to go wrong.

And finally, in case you missed it, Birds 24/7 is now a radio show. T-Mac and I will be on the air every Monday from 6 to 7 p.m. on 97.5 The Fanatic, broadcasting live from 360 at Parx Casino in Bensalem. Some of you asked yesterday about a podcast. We’ll definitely look into it. And you’ll be able to listen live online even if you’re not in the Philadelphia area.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING

According to the National Football Post, the Eagles tried to deal Darryl Tapp, but found no takers:

Before the Eagles gave Darryl Tapp a $1.75 million paycut, they shopped him around the league. There were no takers, so taking the cut probably was a smart move for Tapp. He was not going to be making $2.5 million anywhere in the NFL this year.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter writes about how the Eagles looked for a quarterback last offseason:

Now it’s a bit easier to understand why the Eagles inquired about the availability of Peyton Manning, explored a trade up to the No. 2 spot to draft Griffin and had a private session with Tannehill before his pro day at Texas A&M. The Eagles can’t fully trust Michael Vick to play a full season. In four preseason series, Vick bruised his thumb and bruised his ribs. Now, Vick and the Eagles will be lining up each Sunday against some of the league’s top pass-rushers. The Eagles’ opponents combined for 625 sacks last season, which is the fifth most by any group of combined opponents for a team in 2012, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

And finally, per Evan Mathis’ Twitter account, Danny Watkins agreed to eat a cricket for $120. Mathis posted the video and everything.

COMING UP

It’s a travel day, but we’ll have plenty of Eagles-Browns coverage. And in case you were wondering, we’ll be chatting Sunday, starting at 1 p.m.

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.

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