The Philadelphia Eagles made it no secret that Chip Kelly’s offense would make heavy use of the tight end. After all, the front office spent the past offseason stockpiling talent at the position.
Back in March, the Eagles awarded free agent James Casey a three-year contract worth $12 million. One month later, they used the 35th overall pick in the draft on Zach Ertz. The new additions joined productive veteran Brent Celek to form one of the deepest, most versatile tight end trios in the NFL.
Yet despite those investments, Kelly did not deploy his personnel accordingly—initially. Instead, the head coach worked Ertz into the offense slowly, while Casey inexplicably rarely stepped on the field. Celek saw the bulk of the action as the Eagles frequently lined up in one-tight end formations.
There’s been a shift over the past couple of months, however, and in recent weeks especially. Celek is still the primary tight end, but Casey and Ertz are being mixed in a lot more as the offense comes out in more two- and even three-tight end sets.
You read right—three tight ends on the field at the same time. It’s something we saw them working on back in training camp but hadn't witnessed much of in a game. The frequency of such packages is on the rise now, though.
After the Eagles selected Ertz in April's draft, Kelly discussed the benefits of being able to go three tight ends against a defense, via Tim McManus of PhillyMag.com:
We are going to go three tight ends in a game. Now, do they go three linebackers? We split them out and throw passes. If they go three DB’s, we smash you. So, pick your poison. Simple game. Isn’t hard. You guys thought coaching was hard. They bring little guys in, you run the ball. They bring big guys in, you throw the ball.
Loading up on tight ends is just another wrinkle Chip can use against defenses. The Eagles don’t necessarily need to put all three out there to give defenses problems. Celek, Ertz and Casey all bring something unique to the table, and we’re beginning to define a pattern in their situational use.
Celek is about to finish with his fewest receptions and receiving yards in a season since 2008, his second year in the league. The decrease in production isn't for lack of playing time or decline in physical ability, though. It’s a reflection of how he's been used.
Kelly tends to think of Celek almost as an extension of the offensive line at times, and it’s no wonder. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription only), No. 87 has the highest run-blocking grade among all tight ends who have played at least 50 percent of their team's snaps.
The Birds head coach lists Celek right up there with Jason Peters and the gang when talking about the season LeSean McCoy is having as the NFL’s leading rusher. Via the team's website:
71, 65, 62, 79, 69, 87. We've got some guys that can block, and we've got a very, very talented running back. … This whole deal is a personnel‑driven thing, and we've got some really talented guys on the offensive line. We've got a really talented tight end when it comes to blocking.
That being said, the seventh-year veteran has come on as a receiver of late, which is not a talent opponents should overlook. Over the previous four seasons, Celek posted near-Pro Bowl-caliber numbers, averaging 59 receptions, 744 yards and 4.5 touchdowns.
Pro Football Reference
One of the ways Kelly likes to get Celek active in the passing attack has been with screens. The tight end sets up to block—as he has done on nearly 60 percent of Philly’s snaps this season per PFF (subscription)—then with the defense sufficiently fooled, he slips out into the flat.
But it's what he does once he has the ball in his hands that is really impressive. Look at how Celek sets up his blockers on this play.
Celek gets to the sideline and races an extra 20-plus yards on the play, setting up the Eagles at the goal line. Yards after the catch are kind of his thing, actually. Celek is 77th in the NFL with 248 YAC according to ESPN.com, despite coming in at 106th in total receiving yards with 431. That’s 57.4 percent of his production.
Again, it's no secret why. Opponents can’t enjoy having to tackle Celek. Here he’s just going to carry three defenders for an extra eight yards after a short catch over the middle.
Celek may not be a flashy or elite player, but he's been the total package in Chip Kelly's offense this season.
First of all, look at that catch up above. That’s a one-handed grab in the back of the end zone with the safety bearing down on him. There's a lot going on there concentration-wise to be able to haul in that pass and stay in bounds for the touchdown.
Ertz has seen his playing time increase as the season's gone along. Earlier in the season, he was playing between 20-40 percent of the offensive snaps. Over the past couple of months, the rookie has fallen in the 40-60 range, and against Minnesota, he actually played more snaps than Celek for the first time in his career, according to charting numbers by Pro Football Focus (subscription).
Pro Football Reference
The exceptions have been in games where the Eagles are running the ball more, which makes sense because Ertz is still learning as a run blocker. In fact, he’s often utilized more like a wide receiver.
At 6’5”, 250 pounds with 4.76 speed, Ertz’s size and athleticism make him a matchup nightmare for both linebackers and defensive backs. His runs better than his 40-time would indicate, in part due to his crisp route running. He certainly looks like a wide receiver.
Here, Kelly is going to use Ertz in the slot. The Vikings are going to cover the second-round pick with a safety.
Advantage: Ertz. The tight end is going to beat the safety easily to the inside. As is usually the case, Nick Foles anticipates the target coming open, and the ball is already in the air well before the defensive back has a chance to recover.
Or Ertz can split out wide. The Arizona Cardinals chose to put a linebacker on the tight end, and he actually covers the slant pretty well. This is where Ertz’s massive frame comes in. Foles puts the throw over the top of the coverage and allows his receiver to make a play on the ball in the air.
Ertz is having a monster December with 12 receptions, 152 yards and three touchdowns. Just think what kind of numbers he could put up with a full season even with just his current usage.
Casey went from barely catching a handful of snaps at the beginning of the season to seeing an increasing amount of situational work as the year has gone on. Last Sunday against the Chicago Bears was the most action he's seen all season by far, as he was in on 46 percent of the offensive snaps.
Once compared to a Swiss army knife, Casey has the versatility Chip likes, although the third-string tight end is mostly in games to block. Per Pro Football Focus (subscription), 63.6 percent of the time Casey has been run blocking alone.
That shouldn't come as a complete surprise, as that's how he was often used with the Houston Texans. Casey even lined up a lot at fullback for his previous employer, so he has a lot of blocking experience. If nothing else, that explains why he was on the field so much against the Bears, who have by far the worst run defense in the NFL.
Here, we see Casey executing one of the staples of Kelly’s offense. After the snap, the tight end is going to come across the formation and seal off the defensive end on the opposite side.
Casey lowers his shoulder into the defender’s sternum, stopping him dead in his tracks. The Bears actually have this inside read sniffed out, but the block is so good, McCoy is going to bounce this outside for an 11-yard gain rather than a cloud of dust up the middle.
If Casey is in the game, it’s probably a good sign. It usually means the Eagles are trying to run the ball, either to exploit an opponent’s weakness, or because they have the lead and are killing the clock.