In Chip Kelly’s System, Much Is Asked Of the Tight Ends

You might remember Chip Kelly‘s entertaining response to the tight end question back in April, when he was asked to explain how he can make it work with Brent Celek, James Casey and Zach Ertz all vying for playing time.

“Yeah. You go like that (holds three fingers in the air) and three tight ends go in the game,” he said.

“We are going to go three tight ends in a game. Now, do they go three linebackers? We split them out and throw passes. If they go three DB’s, we smash you. So, pick your poison. Simple game. Isn’t hard. You guys thought coaching was hard. They bring little guys in, you run the ball. They bring big guys in, you throw the ball.”

That’s why Kelly values tight ends so much: they create matchup problems. But in order to capitalize on those matchup advantages, the ends have to be able to successfully “smash” the opposition as a blocker in one moment and create in the passing game the next. That is the challenge that faces this group in Year One under Kelly.

“Of all the spread offenses that I’ve seen, Chip really leans toward running the ball,” said tight ends coach Ted Williams. “In Chip’s offense it is a priority that you be able to block. We spend time teaching them the technique, we spend time teaching them the calls and we spend time teaching them the concepts because it is a priority. Consequently, we’re trying to take all the tight ends we have, examine their skill set, look at their strengths and continue to develop their strengths but develop their weaknesses so they can be the composite tight end that you need them to be: a blocker, receiver, runner.”

Each of the three main tight ends on this roster, then, are being asked to improve a specific area of their game. Williams broke it down for us:

Zach Ertz: “[Receiving] is his strength. But he is big enough, he’s strong enough, he’s willing and we’ve got to be able to get him to be an in-line tight end.We have to produce that skill in him because you can’t just be a receiver in this offense and you just can’t be a blocker in this offense, you’ve got to be able to do both.”

Brent Celek: “His strength is blocking. We’re trying to teach him to be a composite receiver — to read coverages, to read intermediate-level routes and to do things that he hasn’t done a lot of. But he’s progressing in being able to do all the things that are necessary.”

James Casey: “He is a receiver. James has not spent a lot of time as an in-line tight end. He has been the slash guy. He has lined up in the backfield as a fullback, he’s lined up on the line as an H-back, he’s lined up on the line as a tight end. He’s kind of been a jack-of-all-trades. His skill is receiving, his skill is route-running, he knows how to do those kind of things. We have to get him comfortable enough where he can block a six-technique or block a nine-technique. We have to develop that skill.”

Being a “jack-of-all-trades” is vital in this offense. We know that Kelly wants versatile players. On Thursday, Williams helped explain why.

“In this offense, we call it musical chairs,” said Williams. “You are who you are; it doesn’t matter what position you play. You can be anybody on the field at any particular time. You just can’t learn what it is the running back does, and you can’t just learn what the wide receiver does, or  the tight end. You have to learn what everybody does because you could be over here as a tight end on this play and be out there as a wide receiver on the next play, so you better know what he’s doing.”

The tight ends in this offense are required to do every aspect of their job well, and be able to do everyone else’s job also. Given those demands, it’s not surprising Kelly invests in the position.

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  • ClydeSide

    Here’s an excerpt from an interesting article about the use of tight ends:

    “We’ve all seen how productive spread offenses like Oregon, Boise State and Florida have been within the last three years. What separates those teams from traditional spread teams is the implementation and execution of the tight end on normal downs….”

    Here’s the rest of the article:

  • joethomas215

    Funny I never thought of Celek as a blocker, more of a catch the ball run a couple guys over then get popped on the next play or two kind of guy. I do appreciate his toughness tho, and believe he will be an asset, as long as he keeps his head on

  • It’s telling that in the years Celek has been an Eagle he has not learned some key elements of being a productive Tight End in the NFL.

    This certainly shines a bright light on why Celek wasn’t much of a productive target in traffic and with in the intermediate and soft areas of a zone.

    As far as blocking goes, Celek leaves a lot to be desired in that area. I would say he’s not much of a blocker. However given the over all voids in his game being slack as a blocker is understandable.

    • Magilacutty

      I think part of that has to do with injuries to the oline and mike Vick rarely throwing to his TE (probably bc its not algae crumpler, who i always think of at the feet of brian dawkins) Celek had to block on most of his snaps bc of oline problems. Vicks blindside was constantly under pressure. Celek had to hang back and block, however I will say he dropped a lot of sure passes last season, bummer bc I think he is older and had (has?) a lot of potential. I agree totally with the knocks on his blocking though… Funny they said it was his strong suit. I thought burning the seam up the middle was his thang…

    • southy

      Reid never ran his offenses through the tight end. Celek had a lot of promise as he replaced LJ Smith but they never went to him as often as maybe he deserved (and maybe part of that is Vick’s fault). I think we need to give Celek a chance in another scheme before we say he’s no good.

      • BrickSquadMonopoly

        Cant the same be said for all of the players on the roster?

        • southy

          I certainly don’t think so. Celek looked good up to 2012. In 2011 he was open often and just didn’t get the ball, so much that Vick resolved to do so more often in 2012. 2012, admittedly, was not a good year for anyone really.

    • poetx99

      you have to realize that skills to be productive is highly system/team relative. in a system where the TEs are just big WRs, in-line blocking is not a point of emphasis.

      in one where they are not moved around like chess pieces, they only have to master a rudimentary route tree (seam, 5-yd out, drag, curl).

      in offenses where there is a focus on the TE as a weapon in the passing game, they can be expected to have to master the entire route tree, including the subtleties of route running and reading coverages.

      in chip’s offense, sounds like they want it ALL, and i’m loving that. notwithstanding being a former TE, but that’s great. if the TEs skillset is multiple, then his defender has to be multiple: LB or S or NB had better be able to be stout against the run, defend short, deep, and play man OR zone. that limits the hell out of what DCs can do with sub packages

      and if OUR guy can do A or B better than their guy can do A or B, that equals a win for us.

      imagine a chip-led team playing against the falcons with asante. (he doesn’t play against TEs, but illustrates the point). great off the ball pass defender, but won’t tackle to save his coach’s life. he’s getting run at all day.

  • PaoliBulldog

    Barwin could be a Vrabel-esque occasional TE. Ditto LJ.

    Just because CK loves TEs doesn’t mean Harbor will make the team. He hasn’t shown much so far.

    • ClydeSide

      Shaw and Carrier have been looking very good–“smooth athletes” according to Spads. Sounds like a “heard it” comment. You are going to have mainly 2 tight ends: Celek on the line and Casey off the line. Ertz can play both AND split out. After that, Shaw looks like a backup for Casey–at east given the very brief video glimpses they gave us. He runs good routes and is smooth in and out of his cuts–very natural route runner. Carrier looks a little bigger and maybe he’d be a backup on the line. The second tight end (Casey, off the line) will be used like Smelley was and in the Alabama offense. He can seal off the backside DE on running plays, or pull and add numerical advantage on the playside. Alabama used Smelley all over the place gave their offense some unpredictability. Count on Stoutland to do the same thing with Casey (and Ertz).

  • Sco

    I like Celek more as a receiver than a blocker. Not for his hands, those have caused way too many turnovers. Once he has the ball though he gets YAC as good as anyone.

    • Jack Waggoner

      I think when you’re asked to block so often, it does a number on your hands.