Even though the Eagles have dominated the NFC East for most of this decade, whenever the subject turned to the division's best tight ends, they had to be counted out of the conversation.

Yes, Chad Lewis had some nice seasons and some sure hands, but he was known more for going to the ground after a catch than he was for the yards he covered following a reception.

L.J. Smith? Let's not go down that road again. The Baltimore Ravens are probably sorry they did because Smith has just one catch for 26 yards in his first season outside of Philadelphia.

Eagles fans certainly have had reason to be jealous about the production of opposing tight ends. The New York Giants had Jeremy Shockey, a four-time Pro Bowler, from 2002 through 2007. The Dallas Cowboys selected Jason Witten eight picks after Smith in the 2003 draft, and he's been to the last five Pro Bowls. Chris Cooley went to the Washington Redskins in the third round of the 2004 draft, and he's been to the last two Pro Bowls.

With this season set to reach the midpoint Sunday when the Eagles face the Cowboys in a first-place showdown at Lincoln Financial Field, coach Andy Reid's tight end should most definitely be included in the debate about the division's best player at that position.

After catching four passes for 61 yards and a touchdown Sunday against the New York Giants, Brent Celek was asked to join the debate.

"I can't say that," Celek said. "That's up to you guys to decide."

Nudged some more, Celek gave an honest answer.

"I think I am, but that's just me," he said. "If I didn't think that way, then I don't think I should be playing in the NFL."

Celek belongs in the NFL and he belongs in the debate.

At the moment, you can argue that he's the best tight end in the division and one of the best in the entire NFL.

Through seven games, he has caught 37 passes for 447 yards and three touchdowns. If he keeps going at that pace, he'll be the first Eagles tight end to accumulate 1,000 receiving yards since Pete Retzlaff in 1965.

Celek has better statistics than any tight end in the NFC East, including Witten, whom he greatly respects. Both Celek and Witten have caught 37 passes in seven games, but Celek's 447 receiving yards are 99 more than Witten's and he has three touchdown receptions to one for the Dallas tight end.

Cooley, meanwhile, is out with a leg injury he suffered against the Eagles a couple of weeks ago and the Giants' Kevin Boss hasn't been quite as productive as New York hoped when they traded Shockey to the Saints before last season.

Only three tight ends - Indianapolis' Dallas Clark, San Diego's Antonio Gates, and Houston's Owen Daniels (who is done for the season) - have more receiving yards than Celek this season.

Still, Celek knows that Witten has been the division's premier player at tight end in recent years.

"I watch him week in and week out," Celek said. "He's still just as good as he was. I just try to learn some things from him, especially within the league because he's played these teams week in and week out for so many years."

Reid quickly warmed to the comparison between Celek and Witten.

"They are similar," the Eagles' coach said. "They are both very physical players and they both make tough catches. I had a chance to coach Witten in the Pro Bowl this past year. I have a lot of respect for him. He has a great attitude like Brent does, so there are similarities there."

This is the first time in Celek's three NFL seasons that he opened the year as a starter at tight end, but he showed during the Eagles' three-game playoff run last year that he deserved to be the starter, catching 19 passes for 151 yards and 3 touchdowns.

Reid said Celek is just doing what he did in college at the University of Cincinnati.

"He was a tough guy to bring down," the coach said. "He had good yards after the catch in college. He has natural core strength and he seemed to break a lot of tackles in college."

Now, he's doing the same thing in the NFL.