Tight end Clay Harbor is one of those players enjoying the benefit of a full offseason for the first time in his career.
How exactly do players improve during this time?
Entering his third NFL season, Harbor is learning about some of the finer details and nuances of the game.
"The biggest thing now is running routes and learning how to read the defense," Harbor said. "It comes down to details and knowing what they want you to do."
For example, if the offense is lined up against the Cover 2, the linebacker will want to keep the tight end out of the middle of the field. If read properly, Harbor can run so that he forces the linebacker so far inside that the outside of the field will be wide open.
Harbor is also trying to improve as a blocker. He gets to practice and play with "one of the best all-around tight ends" in Brent Celek, who prides himself on being a good blocker as well as a pass catcher. The 6-3, 252-pound Harbor has the athleticism, but he knows from going against the likes of Dallas' DeMarcus Ware and Washington's Brian Orakpo that technique is essential to winning at blocking.
"At college, you're faster, stronger, bigger than some of the guys that you are going against. Obviously here, that's not going to happen," Harbor said. "You have to use proper technique just to give yourself a chance, just to give yourself an opportunity to beat some of these guys that we go against, especially in our own division with great defensive ends and outside linebackers."
In his rookie season of 2010, Harbor's isolation block on Orakpo allowed DeSean Jackson to score an 88-yard touchdown reception on the opening play of the Monday night beatdown in Washington. Harbor battled through his rookie season with a sports hernia that required surgery at the end of the season to repair. Celek endured most of the past season with two sports hernias and a torn hip labrum. Celek still finished among the team leaders with 62 catches for 811 yards and five touchdowns.
"He was in a lot of pain. It's tough. It's tough to run when you have that injury," Harbor said. "It really speaks to his character and how hard he works. He loves to play the game and he works hard. He'll do what he can to play on the field."
Harbor has caught 21 passes for 235 yards and two touchdowns in 25 games over the past two seasons. To better improve his hands, head coach Andy Reid told him to work without gloves in the Organized Team Activities. After hauling in a few catches, Reid joked that Harbor should always play without gloves.
"With your hands, you watch the ball. You focus more," Harbor said. "With gloves, you kind of take it for granted."
The Eagles did not draft any tight ends or sign one in free agency, but there are two other players battling Harbor for a spot on the roster - Brett Brackett, who was on the Eagles practice squad last season, and Chase Ford, a rookie free agent out of Miami. Harbor doesn't take his job for granted.
"You never feel secure. You always want to push and get better, just do as much as you can do to become a better player," Harbor said. "Personally, I feel like if I play well things will work out."
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