Next up in our Training Camp position preview series, we highlight the tight end position - one that offers a lot of reason for optimism in 2016.
1. How will the Eagles deploy Zach Ertz and Brent Celek?
The Eagles have a unique dynamic with Zach Ertz and Brent Celek returning in 2016 as two of the team's three most proven pass catchers. Ertz enjoyed a breakout final month of the 2015 season with 450 yards receiving in the last four games of the season, joining Jimmy Graham as the only NFL tight ends to post that total in any four-game span since 2013.
Ertz finished 2015 with 75 receptions for 853 yards and two touchdowns, playing only 68 percent of the team's snaps. He also missed a game with a concussion. After using the first month of the season to round into form following core muscle surgery, Ertz had 112 total targets for the season, sixth most among tight ends. In that torrid four-game stretch to end the season, Ertz had 46 targets which ranked fifth in the entire NFL and second among tight ends.
The one area where it will be interesting to see how Ertz is utilized is in the red zone. He had only nine targets inside the 20-yard line with three catches and one touchdown. Jordan Matthews was the Eagles' top red zone option in 2015.
Ertz is a player on the rise and the Eagles know it. They signed Ertz to a long-term contract extension this offseason. Ertz wasn't the only tight end who received a new deal in 2016. Celek, the team's longest-tenured offensive player, inked a new contract to ensure that he will finish his career with the team that drafted him in the fifth round of the 2007 NFL Draft.
Celek is not going to lead the team in receiving like he did in 2009, but he still garnered snaps on 52 percent of the offensive plays last season. He had 27 catches for 398 yards and three touchdowns in 2015. Celek has sacrificed personal stats for the betterment of the team, evolving into arguably the top all-around tight end in the game. He is also an emotional leader who is a linchpin for this team.
Now, let's add in a coaching staff that knows how to get a lot out of the tight end position.
We've read a lot about comparisons between Ertz and Kansas City's Travis Kelce, who also signed a new contract this offseason after earning Pro Bowl honors. Of course, head coach Doug Pederson has been with Kelce since he was drafted by the Chiefs in 2013.
Kelce's numbers compare very favorably to Ertz's production. Kelce had 72 receptions (103 targets) for 875 yards and five touchdowns last year. The huge difference is that Kelce was on the field for 92 percent of the offensive snaps, while the No. 2 tight end, Demetrius Harris, played just 33.6 percent of the snaps.
The other wild card is the quarterback. Kansas City's Alex Smith attempted 26.6 percent of his passes to tight ends last season, the fifth-highest mark in the league. Sam Bradford threw to the tight ends 23.7 percent of the time last year, which was 14th in the league. In Bradford's one season in a West Coast scheme, back as a rookie in 2010, he attempted only 19.8 percent of his passes to tight ends. However, Daniel Fells and Billy Bajema, the top two tight ends on that Rams team, don't compare favorably to Ertz and Celek.
Offensive coordinator Frank Reich had the same role for the past two seasons in San Diego. Antonio Gates was suspended for the first four games of 2015 and played most of the season injured. Ladarius Green took over as the most-used tight end. Gates still had 13 red zone targets and five touchdowns inside the 20-yard line last year. In 2014, Gates did have 98 targets and 12 touchdowns.
2. Could Trey Burton be the Eagles' ultimate X-factor?
The Eagles have to replace 127 targets in the pass game between DeMarco Murray, Riley Cooper and Miles Austin. Yes, the Eagles expect the wide receiver corps, bolstered by the additions of Rueben Randle and Chris Givens, to eat up some of those, but what about versatile weapon Trey Burton?
Earning a rep on special teams in his first two NFL seasons, Burton did show off his athleticism with a 43-yard gain in an otherwise forgettable loss last season in Detroit.
Burton doesn't have typical tight end size at 6-2, 235 pounds. But just look at his former Florida Gators teammate, Jordan Reed, who is 6-2, 246 pounds and caught 87 passes for 952 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. Certainly don't expect that type of production with Ertz and Celek, but whether or not Burton can carve out a bigger role in the offense will be something to watch.
Get to know a bit more about the Eagles' tight ends in this Training Camp Preview Gallery and learn why it's one of the most talented position groups on the roster ...
3. Will the Eagles keep a fourth tight end as a fullback?
With the Eagles' version of the hybrid West Coast offense, the prevailing thought is that the team will employ a fullback, a position that was eradicated in Chip Kelly's offense.
The Eagles don't have a traditional fullback on the roster, so those duties could fall on one of the tight ends. Burton is certainly in the mix. A player to watch here is Chris Pantale. The 6-5, 254-pound tight end out of Boston College played five games for the New York Jets in 2014, earning some snaps on special teams. He was on the Eagles' practice squad for almost all of the 2015 season and was re-signed shortly after the offseason began.
|Training Camp Roster: Tight End|
|Trey Burton||24||3||2016||Led the Eagles' esteemed special team unit with 19 tackles. Looking for a bigger role on offense in 2016.|
|Brent Celek||31||10||2018||Simply one of the best tight ends in franchise history as he continues to make an impact on and off the field.|
|Zach Ertz||25||4||2021||After a stellar finish to the 2015 season, Ertz looks to establish himself as one of the NFL's elite tight ends.|
|M.J. McFarland||23||R||2018||Did not play football in 2015. Earned a spot after rookie minicamp tryout. Played 36 games in three seasons at Texas.|
|Chris Pantale||26||1||2017||Spent 2015 on the Eagles' practice squad. Could a hybrid fullback role be his ticket to a spot on the 53-man roster?|