Leading up to training camp, we wrote position-by-position previews of the Eagles’ roster. We have already covered the defensive line, quarterbacks, outside linebackers, running backs, inside linebackers, cornerbacks, wide receivers, safeties and offensive line. Now it’s on to the final group: tight ends.
The pressing question: Is Zach Ertz poised for a breakout campaign?
The last offensive play of the 2013 season was a three-yard touchdown pass from Nick Foles to Ertz that put the the Eagles up on the Saints, 24-23, with just under five minutes to play. (Blanking on what happened next.) There’s some significance to the fact that in the biggest moment of the year to that point, Chip Kelly trusted the rookie enough to have him in the game, and that the quarterback had enough confidence in him to dial up his number.
Ertz slowly built up that trust over the course of the season. After a relatively quiet start to his rookie campaign, Ertz came on late. Twenty-two of his 36 regular-season catches came in the second half of the year, as did all four of his touchdowns. (He added three catches for 22 yards and the TD in that Wild Card game.)
His final numbers (36 catches, 469 yards, 4 TDs) aren’t eye-popping but they stack up pretty well compared to both the 2013 tight end class and the stats that some tight end standouts put up in their first seasons.
Many are predicting that Ertz takes a big step forward this season. The Eagles are certainly hoping that’s the case.
Brent Celek is the starter and that’s not expected to change this year. In a way, Celek and Ertz are playing two different positions. Kelly explained that Ertz [as well as James Casey] is being used as a “move” tight end in this offense. That is similar to the way Aaron Hernandez was deployed in New England — as more of a “Joker” that lines up in various spots and is used primarily as a pass-catcher. Celek is more of the traditional “in-line” tight end where blocking is a bigger priority.
Celek could very well end up with more snaps, but that doesn’t mean that Ertz won’t be featured prominently.
The Eagles’ original 53-man roster last season featured four tight ends — Celek, Ertz, Emil Igwenagu and Casey. Igwenagu was eventually released and signed to the practice squad.
Celek, Ertz and Casey are expected to occupy the top three spots once again. Igwenagu and rookies Blake Annen (Cincinnati) and Trey Burton (Florida) will be competing to make the team this summer.
The Eagles are already on the hook for much of Casey’s $3.985 million salary this season, adding to the likelihood that he’ll stick this year. Whether he sees the $4 million he’s scheduled to make next season is another question.
One thing I think
I’m expecting to see a significant increase in the number of two-tight end looks this season.
The Eagles had two or more tight-ends on the field 27 percent of the time last season, according to Paul Domowitch. Casey averaged just 11 plays per game, and Ertz was on the field less than half as much as Celek.
Ertz began earning more playing time as the season went on. He played 45 percent of the snaps during the second half of the regular season, compared to 36 percent over the first eight games.
It’s not just about the development of Ertz but also the dynamic shift at wide receiver. Gone are DeSean Jackson and Jason Avant. In are rookies Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff, two candidates to fill the third wide receiver spot alongside Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper. Seems logical that the Eagles would lean on multiple tight-end sets (especially early on) as the first-year wideouts get acclimated to the pro game.
WHAT YOU MISSED
Sheil’s 90-man rating system is back, with some interesting notes on Matt Barkley and others.
After contemplating a holdout, Evan Mathis chose to report to training camp.
Sheil broke down Lane Johnson and the offensive line in our latest training camp preview.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING
Eliot Shorr-Parks of NJ.com addresses five questions about the cornerbacks heading into camp:
4. How ready is Jaylen Watkins?
When the Eagles drafted Watkins in the fourth round of this year’s draft, they admitted he was a bit of a project and a bit of a gamble. He is a bit of a gamble because Watkins was battling an ankle injury during pre-draft work outs, causing his 40-time to slip 4.41 seconds. The Eagles and Watkins feel comfortable that once healthy, which he should be heading into camp, he will be one of the fastest corners on the team. Watkins is also a bit of a project because he played both safety and corner in college, and did not exactly excel at either. The Eagles are going to start him out at cornerback, but seeing how ready he is to play and where he lines up is going to be worth keeping an eye on.
Tommy Lawlor of IgglesBlitz.com analyzes the running back situation behind LeSean McCoy:
Last year Bryce Brown was the clear backup, but the Eagles dealt him during the NFL draft. We can’t really talk about the RB situation without talking about Brown and that deal. Why would the Eagles trade a player with Brown’s talent?
We don’t have a definitive answer, but there are a few guesses. First up, you wonder how Brown fit Kelly’s football culture. This isn’t to say Brown was a bad guy at all. He never got in trouble and I didn’t hear a word about him, but his background suggests there may have been some issues with fitting in a football program. Kelly wants players that buy in to his Total Football concept. Maybe Brown didn’t do that.
Then there is his on-field performance. Brown showed great potential in 2012, but struggled last year. His fumbling issue went away, but he never looked all that comfortable in the offense. Brown tried to run outside a lot, with poor results. In his defense, it seemed like the Eagles ran him outside a lot as well. Either way, we only saw glimpses of the player from 2012.
Welcome to football season. Players begin reporting to NovaCare around noon. First practice is Saturday at 11:45.
Josh Paunil contributed to this post.