The Inquirer is previewing the Eagles' offseason. NFL free agency will begin on March 9, and the draft will be April 27-29.
Zach Ertz, Brent Celek, Anthony Denham
Much was expected from Zach Ertz after the Eagles signed him to a five-year, $42.5 million contract extension last offseason. He didn't have a strong start to the season, but a scorching final month allowed him to finish with team highs in receptions (78), receiving yards (816), and receiving touchdowns (4). And it happened even though he missed two games in September. Ertz still played 75 percent of the offensive snaps, but his statistics extrapolated over 16 games would be 89 catches for 933 yards and five touchdowns. With those numbers, it's fair to put him among the top 10 tight ends in the NFL. That's why there should be optimism with Ertz, although he needs more consistency. It cannot just be late-season surges.
Brent Celek played all 16 games in his 10th NFL season, but he was limited to 39 percent of the offensive snaps. He's no longer a starter at age 32, and he wasn't a key part of the receiving game (14 catches, 155 yards). But Celek is still a reliable blocking tight end, a receiver when needed, and a player valued by the coaching staff for his toughness, durability, and professionalism.
Denham was a practice-squad player last year. The Eagles likely will have Ertz, Celek, and Trey Burton back in 2017, so it would be difficult for Anthony Denham to find his way onto the team unless there's an injury, or the Eagles don't add a tight end in the draft and he excels so much in the training camp and the preseason that the team has no choice but to keep a fourth tight end.
The biggest roster decision is with Trey Burton, who is a restricted free agent. Burton emerged as more of an offensive player in his third year. He has been a key special-teams player since arriving in Philadelphia, but he took a big leap on offense in 2017 by playing 29 percent of the snaps and catching 37 passes for 327 yards and one touchdown. He could play on the line and spread out wide, and with problems at wide receiver, the Eagles found more ways to use Burton as the season progressed.
Don't expect Burton to go anywhere. The Eagles value him for both his growing role in the offense and ongoing role as one of the team's best special-teams players. He has developed a close bond with quarterback Carson Wentz. And as a restricted free agent, the Eagles have the option to keep him. They'll give Burton a tender, and unless a team pays Burton big money that the Eagles cannot match, he'll likely play on that tender and be a restricted free agent next offseason. The Eagles also could give Burton a long-team deal if they see him as a potential core player.
This likely won't be the year the Eagles move on from Celek. Even though he counts $5 million against the salary cap, they would save only $1 million by releasing him. The $4 million in dead money would be a lot to absorb, and the team values Celek's contributions on the field and around the facility. He's also remarkably durable for a backup tight end, missing only one game in his 10-year career.
With depth at the position, don't expect the Eagles to be players on the free-agent market. New England's Martellus Bennett and Green Bay's Jared Cook are the top options, but the Eagles won't be looking for a tight end in his 30s when they already have Ertz, Celek, and Burton.
Even after the top players, the Eagles likely won't have a roster spot for a second-contract tight end. So players such as Oakland's Mychal Rivera and Dallas' Gavin Escobar wouldn't make much sense unless the Eagles lost one of the tight ends already on the team. Plus, if they add a tight end this offseason, it almost certainly will come in the draft.
This is considered a strong draft class at tight end. It's not a pressing need for the Eagles, but the talent in this class could compel them to look hard at the position. The top prospect is Alabama's O.J. Howard, an expected first-round pick whose college production (45 catches, 595 yards, three touchdowns) will likely increase in an NFL offense. Howard's talent showed in the past two national-championship games, and he was the biggest standout at the Senior Bowl. He could go off the board in the teens.
The Eagles have other places to look in the first round and don't need a starting tight end because of Ertz, but if the goal is to surround Wentz with top skill-position players, then they must consider Howard. A creative coach can find ways to utilize multiple tight ends, and Howard's size (6-foot-6, 249 pounds) and speed would be an asset on any team.
The other tight end who could go in the first round is Miami's David Njoku, who is leaving after his redshirt sophomore season. Njoku (6-4, 240) will be a player to watch at the combine because his athletic testing is expected to be especially impressive. He likely won't be a candidate for the Eagles' No. 14 or 15 selection, though. He had 43 catches for 698 yards and eight touchdowns last year.
On Day 2 of the draft, watch out for Ole Miss' Evan Engram (6-3, 236), Virginia Tech's Bucky Hodges (6-6, 245), Michigan's Jake Butt (6-5, 250), and South Alabama's Gerald Everett (6-3, 227). Engram excelled for the Rebels with 65 catches, 926 yards, and eight touchdowns. Hodges is a converted quarterback with the size and athletic ability that will intrigue teams. Butt might have gone higher if he didn't injure a knee in the Orange Bowl. He could be a potential stash for the team.
With other needs, the Eagles certainly won't reach for a tight end. But if they're drafting based on value, they could face decisions. On Day 3, the decisions could include Clemson's Jordan Leggett (6-5, 258), Florida International's Jonnu Smith (6-3, 245), and Arkansas' Jeremy Sprinkle (6-5, 256).