It was the classic example, in retrospect, of a coaching staff understanding that a young player was prepared to take the next step, and of the young player responding favorably to the opening of the door with hard work, dedication and an infectious enthusiasm. And then Brent Celek went on to have a sensational season -- 76 receptions, 971 yards, 8 touchdowns and, well, the sky truly is the limit for Celek and for what the Eagles can now do at the tight end position.
Everyone talks about wide receiver, and how the Eagles can build their offensive structure around the skills of DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Jason Avant. True enough. As the coaching staff designs revisions to the playbook in the off-season, the coaches know how much more creative they can be with the X's and O's understanding that the wide receivers can do anything from anywhere on the field. Jackson, in his third season, will have a mastery of the offense and of how to set up cornerbacks and how to free himself in the passing game. For Maclin, Year 2 represents a leap in his routes, his speed and his confidence. You thought Maclin was good as a rookie? Wait until you see him in 2010. He just turned 21 years of age, remember, and he should -- assuming he approaches the off-season the right way -- take a quantum leap in his second NFL season.
But it is the tight end position I want to talk about now, because the Eagles have a really great situation here that goes beyond Celek and potentially could be something to build around in fun, exciting and inventive ways.
Celek is an emerging Pro Bowl-caliber tight end who combines the attention to detail, work ethic, soft hands and athletic ability to become one of the best in the business. Celek still needs to improve in every facet of his game and he knows it, but you see the top-end skills. He has that huge body and the strength after the catch and it's easy to imagine that someday Celek will catch 90 passes, gain 1,100 yards and score 12 touchdowns.
His blocking has come a long way, and it is something to continue to work on and improve upon, so the off-season is going to be busy working on his technique there. If you want to build around Jackson and Maclin, why not build around Celek, too? And, in fact, if things work out as hoped, feature the tight ends more often than not in the years to come?
This is going to be one of the favored positions to watch in the spring camps and then up at Lehigh University. Certainly, Celek is the headline player here, but the Eagles have a nice group of young players in the mix at tight end and there is a chance that one or two of them will emerge to make a very nice complement at the position.
Let's take a look at the tight ends on the roster now and how they might project for 2010 ...
ALEX SMITHAlex Smith is a solid veteran who works hard, who blocks well and who is reliable getting to the spots in the offense. Smith is not the most natural pass catcher, which has always kind of been his knock. If you want a player who is more of a blocker than a receiver, Smith is a fine candidate. Good guy, good teammate, but not an explosive player in the passing game.
Smith is due to be a free agent in March, and if there is no new Collective Bargaining Agreement, he will be restricted after five years in the league. The Eagles can retain him and bring him back to compete for a job knowing that a couple of young players are waiting to provide some competition.
Smith came into the season with the Eagles needing to learn the scheme quickly and he did that. He was much more of an asset because of his blocking. An off-season here could really help him become more familiar with what the offense demands of the position.
Ah, what could have been. And what could be. What do we know about Cornelius Ingram, really? He was a young player who looked so good in the spring camps and early in training camp only to lose his rookie season to a torn anterior cruciate ligament, his second such injury in a 12-month span. The word is that the surgery was performed correctly this time and that Ingram is making encouraging strides in his recovery. He has been diligent in his approach and certainly, seeing him in workout clothes, looks the part of a great young prospect.
Can he stay healthy? Will he trust the knee and can it take the pounding an NFL season offers? Health is really the only question with Ingram, who showed right away that he had the tools to be a special player at this level. The young man can run, he works hard on his blocking technique and he has the intelligence to pick up the offense quickly.
Ingram is an X-factor to consider for 2010. What if he comes back all the way from the knee injury and develops as quickly as it appeared he would develop last year before he tore his ACL? What kind of tweaks could the coaches put into the offense knowing they had Celek and Ingram lining up against too-slow linebackers and too-small defensive backs? Could Ingram, a glorious athlete with a basketball pedigree, help create some room in the red zone? Can you see him going up and catching a fade pass or three?
Having Ingram healthy is like adding an extra draft pick to the mix. He has the mental side of the offense down, having gone through all the installations in the spring and early in training camp. He sat in on the meetings during the season. He is running and making great progress on his knee, and when he takes the field again -- will it be in the spring, or will the Eagles wait until training camp? -- Ingram has to demonstrate that he has his burst back and that he can play with confidence on the knee.
MARTIN RUCKERIn a move to which hardly anyone paid attention, the Eagles promoted Martin Rucker from the practice squad to the active roster in mid-December, a sign that not that expected Rucker to play at some point during the season, but that another team would come along and sign him to *their *53-man roster. Celek was a bit banged up at the time, and the Eagles wanted some insurance just in case, but the truth is that they saw Rucker as a long-term prospect worth keeping around.
At 6 feet 5, 260 lanky pounds, Rucker looks more like a wide receiver than he does a tight end. He is all arms and legs and when he runs a route he has outstanding speed and tremendous hands and you immediately understand why he caught 203 passes in four years at Missouri. If only the position demanding running routes and catching passes ...
Rucker's approach to the off-season is huge. If he can sufficiently build up his strength and develop his blocking, he could very well be worth taking a long, long look to see how he can fit into the offense. Rucker seems to have come a long way working with tight ends coach Tom Melvin -- who deserves a lot of credit for working with Celek, for the swift progress Ingram made before his injury and for integrating Smith into the offense without much of an introduction -- understanding the route concepts after the free-running approach used at Missouri.
Rucker can run as well as any tight end you want to see. Can he do the other things to stick here and be an all-around good tight end?
It is one of the questions that will be answered in the camps. The Eagles are fairly loaded at tight end -- at the top of the list with Celek, a Pro Bowl-caliber player already -- and with some young talent that we'll watch and hope develops. It is a good and underrated situation to have, one worth building at least part of an offense around.