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Birds in position to exploit tight end

ONE OF THE things the Eagles didn't do in the 2012 NFL draft was select a tight end.

"There's a lot of room to work inside there," Eagles tight end Clay Harbor said. (Alejandro A. Alvarez/Staff Photographer)
"There's a lot of room to work inside there," Eagles tight end Clay Harbor said. (Alejandro A. Alvarez/Staff Photographer)Read more

ONE OF THE things the Eagles didn't do in the 2012 NFL draft was select a tight end.

This reflected several things. One was a lousy tight-end draft class, which featured exactly one guy, Stanford's Coby Fleener, taken in the first two rounds (he went in the second to the Colts). It also reflected how good and durable 27-year-old Brent Celek has been. Presumably, it showed how much faith the Birds have in Celek's primary backup, third-year player Clay Harbor. Maybe somewhere in there, too, was the fact that the Eagles like Brett Brackett, the former Penn State wideout turned practice-squad tight end last season.

Tight end is a "hot" position in the NFL of 2012. With Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, the Patriots showed everyone how much real estate there really is to exploit in the middle of the field these days, pre- and postcatch contact having been curbed by rules changes. New England got to the Super Bowl without a superstar wideout corps.

The Eagles think they have a superstar wideout corps, but Harbor said Wednesday he feels that's all the more reason to look over the middle.

"There's a lot of room to work inside there," with defenders focusing on DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin outside, Harbor said. "Guys like [slot receiver] Jason Avant and Brent have been masters of that, catching the ball over the middle. Really, it's a big thing to have – teams can't play Cover 2 all game and leave that middle open with just a linebacker."

Eagles tight-ends coach Tom Melvin noted recently that the Birds used two-tight end sets a lot last season, not just as extra muscle to block for LeSean McCoy.

"I think you've seen [what New England does] in the Eagles' offense already," Melvin said. "When a team has success with something, other teams are going to look at that."

Harbor said the Eagles' tight ends don't get Patriots-level respect; he thinks they could exploit matchups even more in two-tight-end sets, since "most teams stay in base on us, instead of switching to a nickel front."

It seems fair to wonder if the Eagles' use of their tight ends as weapons might be affected a little by the Achilles' injury that will sideline All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters all season. Will newcomer Demetress Bell need more blocking help against elite defensive ends?

"That's going to be more of a game-plan, week-to-week thing," said Melvin. But he added that Bell is a veteran who started for the Bills, not an unknown rookie – the implication seemed to be that the Eagles aren't going to go in assuming they'll need to help him.

Melvin asked Harbor to take off the receiving gloves for OTAs, as an exercise to help his pass-catching.

"You kind of watch the ball in, you focus more. With the gloves, you kind of take it for granted you're going to catch it," Harbor said. "That's really what I've been working on … you guys have felt the gloves, they're kinda sticky."

Harbor arrived 2 years ago as a fourth-round pick from Missouri State, where, like many college receivers, he didn't play the classic NFL tight-end spot – Harbor was more of an H-back and sometimes a wideout. There has been speculation that after letting incumbent fullback Owen Schmitt walk to Oakland in free agency, the Birds might just have Harbor shift to the backfield for the handful of plays in which they use a fullback.

This is a big year for Harbor, who has caught just 22 passes in two seasons. Like the other 2010 rookies, he suffered from the lockout, not getting that normal offseason between the first and second year, the time in which Eagles coach Andy Reid feels players really hone in on what they need to do to make it big. Next April's tight-end class might not be so lean; Harbor needs to really deliver on the promise the coaches feel he has.

The Birds haven't gone the three-tight-end roster route lately, but if they do decide to not employ a fullback, tight end might be where the fullback roster spot logically lands. That decision might have a lot to do with Brackett,a nifty pass catcher who retains practice-squad eligibility.

Harbor said he sees Brackett as "a good player and a fast player. He catches the ball well."

Brackett came to Penn State as a quarterback and was switched to wideout, so when NFL teams told him they saw him as a tight end, at 6-5, 246, Brackett said he wasn't fazed. He signed with the Dolphins last year as an undrafted rookie, was cut, ended up on Jacksonville's practice squad for a while before assuming that role with the Eagles.

"I was considered a wide receiver, but I did a lot of H-back things" in college, Brackett said. "It kind of transitioned well. I have a bigger body; I like the middle of the field. I kind of had an idea that was going to happen, if I had a chance at all."

Celek said when Brackett arrived during the season, it wasn't really a teaching time; Brackett just went to the scout team and ran that week's opponent's offense. Now, Celek said, Brackett is really learning to play the position for the Eagles.

"Clay and Brent and coach Melvin are doing a real good job of teaching the fundamentals," Brackett said. "I'm starting from scratch. It's not like I'm fighting tendencies that are different from what they do here."

Brackett said blocking wasn't as big an adjustment as just "being inside with my hand down."

Having done something similar, Harbor said he understood.

"It's different, instead of being on the outside, seeing the guy in front of you, and maybe looking at a safety, you've got a lot more moving parts," Harbor said. "You've got to make a release off a d-end, a linebacker, you've got the safety over the top – it's got a lot more to look at. Things happen a lot faster out there. And the ball gets on you quicker. That's the biggest thing. Early in college I moved from receiver to tight end. The biggest thing you've got to realize is second-level slips and getting off defenders. People think, 'Oh, you take a great receiver, put him inside, he's going to be an even better tight end.' That's not always the case, because there's different skills there."