Casey Shows Up Early, Preps For ‘Very Important’ Role

James Casey lined up with his hand on the ground, waited for the imaginary snap, exploded out of his stance and started into his pass route.

This was last Thursday, a full week before the Eagles’ new tight end was required to be at the NovaCare Complex. But there he was, all by himself on the practice field on the hottest day of summer (98 degrees).

When the Eagles signed Casey back in March, Chip Kelly referred to him as a tempo-setter. And this is exactly what he was talking about. Casey doesn’t seem to care much for the offseason. Entering his fifth year in the league, he has developed a routine: show up to the facility three weeks before camp starts, get settled and be one of the players to set the tone when everybody else shows up.

On Tuesday, when Eagles’ rookies practiced for the first time, the only veterans in attendance (other than the quarterbacks) were Casey and Jason Kelce.

“He wanted to be here,” Kelly said. “There’s a rule if you don’t go through the full part of the mandatory mini-camp, you’re allowed to bring certain veterans back if they didn’t go through that, along with the quarterbacks.  And James and [Jason] Kelce both wanted to be here and be part of it.  So I left it up to both those guys in terms of what they wanted to do.

“Both of them were excited to be here and be part of it.  They’ve been here all summer long, every day.  Now we get to actually work with them. So it’s good to get a chance. James missed a couple of days, but [he’s] real smart, real sharp, picked up where he left off in the OTAs.”

Casey missed part of the spring to have his right knee scoped, but said he was back to 100 percent two weeks later.

Excited about his new role, the last thing he wanted was to be playing catch-up once training camp kicked into high gear.

“I get to get out there and get some conditioning in and work on some of the individual stuff with the rookies because I feel like I didn’t practice those last couple OTAs,” Casey said. “So I need to be out here anyway, put some work in because those other guys are working hard during OTAs and I wasn’t out there. Now I can go out there, kind of pay back some of the time that I missed while the veterans aren’t here. And then I can be prepared for when the veterans get here, Day One, ready to go.”

While Kelly is still weeks away from unveiling his offense, versatility has been a buzz word since he was hired. As we pointed out with the All-22 back in March, that is the defining characteristic of Casey’s game. He can line up in the backfield, in-line as a tight end or in the slot and handle a variety of responsibilities.

Kelly clearly loves the range of Casey’s skill set and made no effort to downplay the new tight end’s role in the Eagles’ offense.

“Very important,” Kelly said. “We pride ourselves on versatility and being able to put different personnel packages out on the field at the same time. Having a guy that can play multiple positions makes a lot of difficult decisions for the defense in terms of how you’re going to defend them.  So [we’re] trying to utilize that and James. The more times we get a practice opportunity with them, the more times we get a chance to see what he does best and play to his strengths.”

Last year, according to Pro Football Focus, Casey was used as a lead blocker in the run game 55 percent of the time he was on the field. That number figures to take a mighty dip now that he’s with the Eagles. While Casey is quick to point out that he’s a team player and will do whatever the coaches ask of him, the sense is he’s expecting more opportunities as a receiver.

“I think I’m really good at just getting the ball in my hands and making plays down the field or even short passes and making people miss even though I’m a bigger type of tight end guy,” Casey said, later pointing out that he caught 111 balls during his sophomore year at Rice. “I pride myself on having really good hands and being able to catch the ball and being a good player when the ball’s in my hands. So I hope to get a chance to get the ball my way quite a bit.”

Blocker, receiver, tempo-setter. By all accounts, expectations are high for the first offensive free agent Kelly signed as an NFL head coach.

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