His rookie season is down to one game, yet Brent Celek isn't worried about using it as the final 2007 audition to be the Eagles' starting tight end next season.
"I don't think of it like that," Celek said.
But that won't alter the way the coaches scrutinize him Sunday when the Buffalo Bills come to Lincoln Financial Field to help the Birds pull down the curtain on a forgettable campaign.
It's likely L.J. Smith has played his final game for the Eagles. This season has been an injury-ravaged nightmare for Smith, and there's the persistent notion that he hasn't quite measured up to expectations. It appears the team is quite willing to let him go when he becomes a free agent in March.
Matt Schobel, the other tight end, who sat out Sunday's 38-23 win over New Orleans, is serviceable enough, but that doesn't quite cut it in a division that has Jason Witten of the Cowboys, Chris Cooley of the Redskins, and Jeremy Shockey of the Giants playing a position that requires equal parts muscle, skill and athleticism.
As a result of injuries to Smith and Schobel, the 6-foot-4, 261-pound Celek has gotten more playing time than he might have expected. No question, the fifth-round draft choice out of Cincinnati is a work in progress as far as his blocking is concerned, but he hasn't done much to discourage the Eagles from putting him in the mix when the fight for starting jobs resumes.
"I don't know," the 22-year-old Celek said yesterday when asked whether he is ready to be a starter. "We'll see about that next year. I think I've got to get better. I've got to get better at run-blocking, pass-blocking a little bit, and I need to work on my routes. But I think down the line I can be one."
For the most part, Celek has displayed sure hands and the power to break tackles. In the last two games, he has five catches for 85 yards. He made a critical 29-yard reception late in the 10-6 win over Dallas two weeks ago that helped seal the Cowboys' fate. He had another 29-yard reception against the Saints; that catch jump-started an 85-yard scoring drive in the first quarter.
In all, Celek has 13 catches and is averaging 12.3 yards a grab. More important to him, though, is the education he has gotten during his first NFL go-around.
"The thing I think is really different [from college] is that the players on the defensive side of the ball are where they're supposed to be," he said. "People don't really make too many mistakes at this level. The guys in the NFL know what they're doing on every play, so if they're planning Cover 2, they're running Cover 2. They don't have too many missed plays. In college, people are going to mess up.
"I've learned you've got to be consistent game in and game out with your blocking, pass- and run-blocking, and you've got to be a receiver. But it's all about being consistent. You have to do it consistently on every play. I think in college your athleticism can take over, where here you've got to use good technique."
Next season, the Eagles will need more production from their tight ends than the 45 catches and two touchdowns they've received this year. By comparison, Witten has 94 catches and seven TDs; Cooley 61 and eight TDs; and Shockey, his season cut short by a broken leg, has 57 and three TDs.
Whether or not the Eagles believe Celek might be the answer, there will be a new name or two to challenge him, whether it's through the draft or free agency. All Celek knows for sure is that he will be better prepared now that he's had valuable experience.
"I've learned a lot, and it's helped a lot that I've gotten to play," he said. "I've pretty much become acclimated to the way the game is played, and I feel I've gotten better every week. You've just got to play your game, do your thing, and everything will work out."