Brent Celek looks the part. He almost never runs the wrong route. He catches everything thrown his way. In his third NFL season and his first as a going-in-as-a-starter tight end, Celek seems right at home in the Eagles offense. Truth is, he is going to have an enormously different role than the one he had for two seasons, and that sure seems OK right now.
Celek is one of the Eagles' young veterans who steps in and steps up early in his career. The Eagles have done this for years and years -- give young players a taste as rookies and then see how much growth they are ready to accept in years two and three. Celek played sparingly as a fifth-round draft pick in 2007, and then he took the starting job away from L.J. Smith toward the end of 2008 and shined so much then and in the playoffs that the Eagles coaching staff felt more than comfortable with Celek as the starter at the position rather than going out and pursuing a veteran in free agency or in a trade.
Celek is the latest in a long line of progression and maturation for young Eagles. On defense, the Eagles made Stewart Bradley their middle linebacker in 2008 after seeing him play strikingly well at the end of 2007. Akeem Jordan and Omar Gaither made similar leaps, although they did not take the same road, and now they are battling for the starting job at WILL linebacker. Brodrick Bunkley had a washout of a rookie season, but the Eagles believed that he was ready to become a starter in Year 2, so they traded incumbent defensive tackle Darwin Walker and promoted Bunkley.
Todd Herremans had a good thing going at left tackle late in his 2005 rookie season and then suffered a broken ankle. The coaching staff still gave Herremans the opportunity to gain a starting job at guard the next year, and he seized the chance and has become a good player inside.
Quintin Demps saw time on an occasional basis last year as a rookie, and now he is in line to start at free safety in Year 2 of his career. Is he ready? We're going to find out, but the Eagles' history of success suggests that Demps will live up to the challenge as the starter.
Sometimes, we all get caught up in how much production the Eagles get from their rookie classes. And, sure, you want every member of the roster to contribute, and you surely want the rookies to make a splash. But even in the case of a player like DeSean Jackson, Year 2 is often far more telling of just what kind of player is lining up for years to come.
Take Jackson's case. He was terrific last year, catching 62 passes, doing a good job as the team's punt returner. Jackson showed durability, toughness, explosiveness -- everything you look for in a young player. What does he do for an encore? How good can Jackson be this season? Is he ready to take the next step and become a star, or he is going to be a good player who needs a rest here and there to stay fresh later in the season?
If the spring practices were any indication, Jackson is taking the next step. The rule of thumb in the NFL is that players make their most improvement from Year 1 to Year 2. With a full off-season under his belt, with the understanding of the grind a regular season and playoff run delivers, and with a year of X's and O's ingrained in his brain, Jackson should be a much-improved player. He dominated in the spring.
It's interesting when you talk to coaches about a team "making improvement" from one year to the next. Certainly, the draft plays into the equation. And free-agent acquisitions and players brought here by trade are vital to the overall picture. But so is the idea that a team gets better when young players mature and prepare for a greater contribution. The Eagles have done it all of these years, and generally they have made the right calls.
Celek is in the "next step" phase. So is Demps. And Jackson. And even Trevor Laws, who should push Bunkley and Mike Patterson for more playing time this season. The list of young veterans doing more is a long one here. The group is a core for a team looking to be very good for years to come.
For that to happen, the young bucks must make progress. They looked the part in the spring. We'll know a lot more when the pads go on.