The Matchup: Eagles Vs. Lions

Chip Kelly might not admit it, but he has favorites.

Players whose names he will bring up unprompted. Guys he’ll go out of his way to mention as underrated or under-appreciated. And atop that list this year has been tight end Brent Celek.

On the surface, Celek’s numbers are unimpressive: 23 receptions for 319 yards. He’s on pace for his lowest per-game averages since 2008 in both categories. But there are plenty of reasons why Kelly has sung Celek’s praises all year long.

“I think Chip respects guys that give everything they’ve got on every single play when you’re out there,” Celek said. “I respect everything that he’s done. Everything that he does makes sense, and you as a football player, that’s what you want. You want answers to some of your questions, and he answers those. And everything he wants you to do, it all makes sense.”

The strong relationship between Celek and Kelly was no given during the offseason. The seventh-year tight end was an Andy Reid loyalist. Even as things fell apart last season, Celek stood at his locker after every game and defended his head coach.

Meanwhile, after Kelly was hired, he made moves to bolster Celek’s position, signing James Casey in free agency and drafting Zach Ertz in the second round. Those moves could have rubbed Celek the wrong way and put his standing with the team in question, but Kelly made sure that was a non-issue.

“He called me both times right afterwards,” Celek said. “And I think that makes you have a lot of respect for a guy too when he’s telling you where you stand at all times, and I can really appreciate that.”

Added Kelly: “I called everybody. When we drafted Lane [Johnson], I talked to Jason Peters and Todd [Herremans], who our tackles were at the time. When we signed free agents, we called the other guys at those positions on the team. For me, it’s part of the process. They are involved in this team and I think they should understand what direction we are going in and why we are doing things.”

Ertz wasn’t sure what to expect when he stepped foot into the Eagles’ locker room, but he found out quickly that Celek was willing to help him along.

“You hear all these stories that the vets are all into themselves around the league. At least in college that’s what you hear, and Brent was the complete opposite,” he said. “He’s kind of been like a big brother to me. He’s been unbelievable both on and off the field.”

The investment in the tight end position is starting to pay off. Celek is blocking better than he ever has and is a key veteran in building the team’s new culture. Ertz had his best game of the season against Arizona with five catches for 68 yards and a pair of scores. And Casey is trying to make the most of somewhat limited opportunities (12 snaps last week), while contributing on special teams.

Kelly has two coaches in charge of the three players: 34-year-old Justin Peelle and 70-year-old Ted Williams. Peelle played his college ball at Oregon before Kelly got there, but the two got to know each other over the years. He also helps run the scout-team defense.

“I wanted to get a lot of young guys in here that are willing to work, do all the grunt work, the film breakdown, staying here until 1 in the morning, at night, make sure everything’s all set for us,” Kelly said. “I knew he was going to be one of those guys.”

Williams, meanwhile, is in his 19th season with the organization, having served previously on the staffs of Ray Rhodes and Andy Reid.

“The first time I met him, sat down and had an interview with him, there’s a lot of intelligent people in the world, but there’s not a lot of wise people in the world. I think Ted has wisdom,” Kelly said. “A guy that has been around this organization for as long as Ted has, a great teacher, just a guy that, you know, that wily old sage veteran in the room that we can really bounce a lot of ideas off. It was really important to have Ted be a part of the staff also.”

The two assistants divide up responsibilities. Peelle spent 10 seasons in the league, having bounced around to four different teams. He was with the 49ers as recently as 2011.

“Justin’s played the position so there are a lot of things that he knows that are current with the game because he’s played it that are very, very helpful,” Williams said. “We kind of compliment each other in terms of making sure that we say the right things, but the delivery is different so it doesn’t get stale.”

Added Casey: “It’s easy for him [Peelle] to relate to players since he knows what it’s like to be in the locker room. He knows what we’re going through, the day-in, day-out process of how much work goes into this position, how much the grind is from week to week.”

Peelle brings the experience as a player, while Williams brings the experience as a coach.

“I’m not an overly vocal person, but I’m gonna behind the scenes encourage you,” Williams said. “Behind the scenes, I’m gonna be very direct in terms of what I know is right. And I’m gonna be consistent in what I believe is right.”

Overall, Celek has played 77 percent of the team’s snaps; Ertz 41 percent; and Casey 8 percent. Celek is the best blocker and the most well-rounded of the group. While his overall numbers are down, Celek is averaging a career-high 13.9 yards per catch.

Ertz continues to grow into the best downfield receiving threat among the team’s tight ends. And Casey could get his number called a bit more as a blocker in the run game.

The group as a whole, and the coaches that lead them, will play a major factor in determining the Eagles’ offensive success down the stretch.