If you are like many fans, the sixth round of the NFL draft is the time to tune out just enough to think of the players taken as "project" types, attractive to teams because something stands out – speed, size or maybe the idea of taking a flyer on a kid. This sixth-round pick, though, is on the verge of something startling …
The Eagles are giving Jason Kelce the starting reps at center in preseason game No. 3, a move that is as significant as anything you are going to see. A sixth-round draft pick starting at center? For a team that has Super Bowl aspirations?
This is remarkable, and this has Howard Mudd written all over it. Mudd insisted when he was hired that he would evaluate the players along his offensive line based on what he saw, and not on what they did in the past. The conventional thinking was that Jamaal Jackson, returning from a season-long injury last year, would battle Mike McGlynn, who started 16 games in 2010, for the starting spot now. And that maybe, just maybe, A.Q. Shipley would nudge his way into the equation.
Out of nowhere – at least from this perspective – Kelce has been in the picture from the very start of training camp. He and Jackson shared first-team reps during training camp, and while Jackson started the first two preseason games, the thinking was that Mudd wanted to give Kelce some reps with the starters in a game situation.
Well, here we are. It isn't as if Jackson is playing poorly – in fact, he seemed to play very well in limited time against the Ravens and then through the first half last week in Pittsburgh – but the Eagles want to see what Kelce, a nasty, tough, 285-pounder can do. This is the perfect matchup, really, because Kelce has a chance to line up against Cleveland's 4-3 front, and face two massive bodies in Browns' first-round draft pick Phillip Taylor (355 pounds) and Ahtyba Rubin (330 pounds).
Kelce has played very well when he's been out there. His signature moment came last week when Mike Kafka completed a screen pass to Dion Lewis and Kelce opened up the field with a devastating block against linebacker Stevenson Sylvester to spring Lewis for a 40-yard gain.
It was, technically speaking, a perfect knockdown. Kelce made the block and quickly gained his feet and looked for more. No question, it was a block that Mudd watched over and over again, beaming with pride.
Kelce is now in the position of leading the offensive line into a three-quarters battle against an aggressive Browns defense at Lincoln Financial Field. No longer is the thought that Mudd would consider starting a rookie at center preposterous. If Kelce plays a good game, there is every reason to think that he will remain the starter there. Mudd clearly has confidence in his young center.
If there is a question about Kelce, other than the obvious experience factor, it is his lack of bulk. Can he anchor against power defensive interiors? We're going to find out. Taylor and Rubin are talented, hungry and as large a pair inside as the Eagles will see all season. If Kelce controls the "A" gap, Mudd is going to be mighty, mighty pleased.
And if that happens, the Eagles could truly, honestly, believe it because it's going to be real, head into the season with a rookie at center, a rookie at right guard and, well, who knows at right tackle (King Dunlap starts against Cleveland and Winston Justice could return to the practice field next week).
Despite the moving parts, there is a sense of great confidence with Mudd running the show. He's been around the block – pun intended – a few times, so experimenting this late in the preseason is nothing new. The Eagles are not looking for short-term fixes here. They want to improve every week, challenge every player and every position and put together a team that can make a serious run at a championship.
Keep an eye on Kelce, whom the Eagles fell in love with during his career at the University of Cincinnati. Kelce started the final 38 games of his career as a Bearcat, but only 12 of them at center. He was ill during the post-college all-star season and lost some weight, which dropped his draft stock.
As the 191st player drafted, Kelce is surely one of the great stories that nobody in the league is talking about, but think about it: On a team featuring a galaxy of stars, one that is serious about going the distance, a sixth-round draft pick is in line to become the Great Communicator of the offensive line, responsible for keeping superstar quarterback Michael Vick clean.
What happens with Jackson, then? He is an excellent football player, particularly adept in pass protection. Jackson is still going to challenge for the starting job at center, and he could get some reps at guard, too. The Eagles aren't going to cast aside such a good player just for the sake of change.
This may not be the headline position the fans are going to watch against Cleveland, but you can be sure the coaches are going to look long and hard at Kelce's performance. A strong effort is likely to thrust him into the leading spot at one of the most important positions in the NFL.