EAGLES POSITIONAL REVIEWS
During the next two weeks, The Inquirer will preview the Eagles' offseason. Free agency begins on March 10, and the draft is April 30-May 2.
Mon, March 2: Defensive line; Tues., March 3: Outside linebacker; Wed., March 4: Inside linebacker; Thurs., March 5: Cornerback; Fri., March 6: Safeties
After releasing James Casey last week, the Eagles now have three tight ends under contract: Brent Celek, Zach Ertz, and Trey Burton.
Celek is coming off one of the worst statistical seasons of his career (32 catches, 340 yards, 1 touchdown), yet he remains an integral part of the offense and a favorite of the coaching staff. Coach Chip Kelly values Celek's blocking and considers the 30-year-old the best blocking tight end in the NFL. Pro Football Focus ranked Celek the No. 2 run-blocking tight end in the NFL. That's a big reason why Celek played 69 percent of the offensive snaps – 228 more plays than Ertz.
Ertz took only half of the offensive snaps. That should increase in the 2015. He's too much of a weapon, and he's worked to improve his blocking. Ertz finished with 58 catches for 702 yards and three touchdowns last season. He is a mismatch in the middle of the field, with a good combination of size and speed to go along with outstanding ball skills. Entering his third season, Ertz can take the next step to become one of the top tight ends in the NFL – as long as he receives the opportunity.
I'd expect Burton to take the role that Casey fill last season. Burton is similar to Casey. He's only five pounds shy at 6-3 and 235 pounds, he is a converted quarterback like Casey, and he is able to play out of the backfield and contribute on special teams. Burton, who was an undrafted free agent out of Florida, learned under Casey, who Casey took 170 snaps. Some of those should go elsewhere, but Burton can see an increase from the six he played in 2014.
The Eagles have all three specialists under contract: kicker Cody Parkey, punter Donnie Jones, and long snapper Jon Dorenbos.
Parkey, who the team acquired late in the preseason, was a revelation as a rookie. He connected on 32 of 36 field goals, including all four attempts from more than 50+ yards. Plus, 65.3 percent of his kickoffs were touchbacks. He was a major upgrade over Alex Henery. Parkey seemed to tire late in the year, but he had never kicked so much in his career. His future appears bright if he remains on the trajectory he started as a rookie.
Jones was in the first year of a three-year, $5.5-million contract. His second season with the Eagles was not as prolific as his first, but Jones remained a reliable punter. The 34-year old is a big part of the Eagles' top special teams unit. Dorenbos, who was also in the Pro Bowl last season, is among the NFL's highest-paid long snappers. He is also a trusted part of special teams and his snapping remained consistent.
The Eagles don't have any free agents at tight end or specialists.
If there is any roster decision to watch, it's with Celek's contract. Celek is due $4.8 million in 2015. There would be no dead money if he is cut, although he maintains an important role in the offense, as noted above. The Eagles could always try to renegotiate if they wanted some cap relief. As of now, Celek is still slated to earn that salary.
Dorenbos and Jones both draw veteran salaries, but they are not burdensome on the cap.
FREE AGENT OPTIONS
If the Eagles return Celek, the top of the depth chart is crowded with Celek and Ertz. That means the Eagles likely wouldn't be major players for the top tight ends on the market – a group that includes Denver's Julius Thomas, Cleveland's Jordan Cameron, Miami's Charles Clay, Cincinnati's Jermaine Gresham, and Casey.
Thomas is an elite option, and will get compensated accordingly. Cameron and Gresham are former Pro Bowlers. They're part of the market for starting tight ends, which the Eagles don't need at this point.
The same goes for special teams. Assuming the Eagles return all three specialists, they won't be searching for a kicker, punter, or long snapper on the open market.
One of the reasons the free agent tight ends will be popular on the open market is because this is not an enticing draft class for the position. There might not be a first-round pick in the group. If there is, it's Minnesota's Maxx Williams (6-4, 249). The other top tight ends are Miami's Clive Walford (6-4, 251), Penn State's Jesse James (6-7, 261), Rutgers and Downingtown East's Tyler Kroft (6-5, 246), Notre Dame's Ben Koyack (6-5, 255), and Florida State's Nick O'Leary (6-3, 252).
The Eagles carried four tight ends last season, but that meant one fewer running back. If they carry an additional running back this season, it will likely need to come from the wide receiver or tight end pool. If the Eagles draft a tight end, I wouldn't expect it to come until later in the draft. That means those names above likely wouldn't be in the mix, unless they fell.
It might also be worth paying attention to wide receivers that could be converted to tight ends. Michigan's Devin Funchess (6-4, 232) and Georgia Tech's Darren Waller (6-6, 238) fit that description. Funchess will go near the top of the draft, but Waller (who ran a 4.46 40-yard dash) could be a Day 3 selection.
The Eagles will likely bring a specialist or two into camp, but they are not expected to invest a pick.