The Eagles are undergoing serious change at the tight end position. From 1999-2004, Chad Lewis was the main guy. He gave Donovan McNabb a reliable target over the middle. L.J. Smith came along in 2003, but really became "the guy" in 2005 when he caught 61 passes, tying him for the team lead. Lewis is long since gone and now Smith has traveled down I-95 to Charm City.
The position will now be manned by third-year player Brent Celek and rookie Cornelius Ingram. Veteran Matt Schobel and first-year player Eugene Bright are fighting to earn a roster spot as the third tight end.
Celek had a solid season in 2008, catching 27 passes and showing flashes of good potential. He really got our attention with a terrific postseason. He led the team with 19 catches and three touchdowns as the Eagles made a run at the Super Bowl. Ingram wasn't able to play in the 2008 season due to a torn ACL, but he had a good career at Florida. He has a good combination of size, athletic ability and positional skills.
Sometimes change is a scary thing. You hope that the young player or new guy will be able to play up to the level of the player he's replacing. This is not that situation. Smith struggled the last couple of years. I'm glad that change has come. I want to see what the young guys can do.
The big advantage that both Celek and Ingram have over Smith is that they are natural receivers. They have good hands and catch the ball smoothly. Smith was a very good athlete, but his hands were highly inconsistent. He'd make one impressive catch and then bobble a simple pass. That inconsistency negated his athleticism. You couldn't count on the guy. A quarterback must be able to trust his receivers.
Celek is the starter. I was a big fan of his when he played collegiately at Cincinnati. Celek seemed like the perfect West Coast offense tight end. That ability I saw in college has shown up in the NFL. He's played well in his two seasons with the Eagles, especially as a receiver. Celek has good hands, runs crisp routes and has good run-after-catch ability.
His play should get even better this year. Celek has answered each challenge since coming to the Eagles. He came up big in the late-season game at Dallas in 2007 when there was still an outside shot the team could sneak into the playoffs. Remember that 29-yard catch he made on third down late in the game? That was the kind of clutch catch you want from a tight end. Celek was the primary tight end in three games last season. He caught 12 passes in those games. He had the strong postseason showing on top of that. Now, he is the starter. I fully expect Celek to once again rise to the occasion.
The one area that I'm not sure of is blocking. Celek's effort has generally been good enough, but he lacked the strength and skill to be considered a good blocker. As a starter, Celek must improve that part of his game. He now becomes an important part of the running game. I mentioned that Celek had good numbers as a receiver in the games he started during the season and playoffs. The Eagles didn't run the ball well in five of those six games. That certainly isn't all on Celek. The team didn't run well all too often last year. Still, it is a possible concern. Celek is doing the right things to address the issue. He's gotten bigger and stronger during the off-season. He said that one thing that hurt his blocking last year was a lingering shoulder injury. That is fully healed at this point. He knows his blocking is important and needed work so I'm cautiously optimistic that we'll see improvement from last year.
Ingram is a player I'm excited about. He is the most talented tight end that we've had since Keith Jackson played here in the late 1980s and early 1990s. With that thought in mind, I decided to go back and watch some tape of Jackson from his days with the Eagles. He was a very talented player and gifted receiver.
Jackson owned the middle of the field. He wasn't huge. He was somewhere in the 6-2 and 255-pound range. Jackson was quick, which allowed him to get some separation from a defender. He looked like a basketball player trying to box out an opponent as they fought for a rebound. That is a good tight end trait. Those guys are rarely wide open so they must be able to catch the ball while tightly covered. Jackson was very good at this. He had soft, natural hands and plucked the ball with ease. It didn't matter whether the quarterback was Randall Cunningham, Jim McMahon, or Jeff Kemp, Jackson was the main target over the middle. They all trusted him and fed him the ball. I do apologize for mentioning Kemp's name without warning. I realize that will send some fans into dangerous flashbacks.
Ingram has the potential to be a similar player to Jackson. He's taller at 6-4, but has many of the same traits. Ingram has very good hands. He can catch the ball when closely defended. He actually has a basketball background. He played on the team at Florida and I seem to recall them being pretty good recently. They were part of the song One Shining Moment a couple of times.
Had Ingram stayed healthy and played well as a senior he would have been in the mix to be a late first-round pick. Instead, he slid all the way down to the fifth round. As long as his knee holds up, he could be the biggest steal of the entire draft.
If he does stay healthy, I think Ingram has a chance to challenge for the starting tight end spot as soon as 2010. Celek has good potential, but Ingram could be special. Ingram has that kind of ability. He can make dynamic catches. Ingram can make big-time plays after the catch. He is quick, fast and elusive. The coaches can split him out wide and he's talented enough to beat some defensive backs. The big concern in terms of his skill set is his blocking. Ingram spent most of his time at Florida split out wide and playing in space. In the NFL, he will be an in-line player. Some guys make that adjustment quickly and easily while other guys struggle.
Celek and Ingram could be an outstanding one-two punch at tight end. Both guys are young, athletic and catch the ball well. Back in 2003 and 2004, Andy Reid loved to use the Ace formation. This featured two tight ends, two wide receivers and one running back. That was very effective because McNabb could throw to so many targets. The defense couldn't focus on one player. We haven't had as much success with that formation in recent years because defenses didn't have to worry about both tight ends. They had a feeling which side McNabb would look to. I hope we get back to using the Ace formation a lot this year. The personnel are definitely in place.
I am curious as to how good Celek and Ingram will be in the red zone. Over the last four seasons, Eagles tight ends have a total of 19 touchdown receptions. Chris Cooley has 22. Jason Witten has 18. Jeremy Shockey has 17 (I chose him because most of that time he was a Giant). Tight ends must come up big in the red zone. Clearly, that hasn't been the case for us in recent years. Both Celek and Ingram are taller than Smith. Both guys have better hands. They must get open and make catches when given a chance. The red zone offense struggled last year. These young guys have a chance to help out in that area.
I definitely look forward to seeing what Celek and Ingram can do. This is the best I've felt about the tight end position in a while. If the guys can stay healthy and become adequate blockers, the tight end spot could once again become a strong position for the Eagles.