Eagles need more options at tight end

Jets tight end Dustin Keller, a free agent, was injured last season, but has put up strong numbers in the past.
Jets tight end Dustin Keller, a free agent, was injured last season, but has put up strong numbers in the past. (BILL KOSTROUN / Associated Press)
Posted: March 10, 2013

Whether one subscribes to the argument that having two above-average, pass-catching tight ends greatly increases an NFL team's chances of success, the Eagles need to upgrade at the position.

Like at safety - another spot where the Eagles need change - there are an abundance of tight ends in free agency and the draft from which the team can address its need.

Free agency, of course, comes first - Tuesday, to be exact. There aren't any studs on the market, but there are a handful of tight ends - Jared Cook, Delanie Walker, and James Casey - whom the Eagles could get at good value.

Little is known of Chip Kelly's opinion on the importance of the position in the NFL. Last season when the new Eagles coach was at Oregon, his tight ends accounted for a small percentage of receptions (11.6 percent) and receiving yards (6.4 percent) in the Ducks' offense.

Kelly may have simply been catering his offense to the skill-set of his pass catchers, though. And he could look at the growing number of talented tight ends in the NFL and come to the conclusion that he needs to utilize the position in the pros.

If so, that could bode well for current Eagles Brent Celek and Clay Harbor, although it's not like the pass-happy Andy Reid ignored his tight ends. The league average for tight end production per team last season was 78.9 catches for 870.1 yards and 6.5 touchdowns.

Celek and Harbor caught a combined 82 passes for 870 yards and three touchdowns in 2012. Celek started off strong but tailed off and had some forgettable moments holding onto the football. Harbor never seemed to get in a rhythm. Their struggles, in part, could be attributed to the overall problems on offense.

If Kelly believes he can get more out of the position, he may look elsewhere for help. Celek isn't likely going anywhere. Harbor could be the odd man out, or Kelly could decide to carry three tight ends and phase out the fullback as more teams seem to be doing.

Tight ends are unique weapons on offense because it is very easy to create mismatches. A closer look revealed a disparity in tight end production between playoff and nonplayoff teams, although not as great as one might think.

Last season, playoff-bound teams received an average of 90.4 catches for 1,047.4 yards and 7.3 touchdowns from their tight ends. Tight ends on nonplayoff teams accounted for 72 catches for 767.6 yards and six touchdowns.

There were certainly exceptions to the rule, but in many cases playoff teams had two reliable pass-catching tight ends. The Patriots set the trend three years ago with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez setting NFL records for tight end tandems.

Still, when both were injured last season it wasn't as if the Patriots threw as much to their less-talented backups.

Cook, Walker, and Myers would probably be upgrades to Harbor and complements to Celek. The 6-foot-4, 235-pound Cook is more receiver than tight end. He caught 49 passes for 749 yards (15.5 avg.) in 2011, but saw his numbers (44-523-11.9) slip last season as the Titans transitioned to quarterback Jake Locker.

Many thought Tennessee would franchise tag Cook, and a deal still could be worked out, but he could thrive under Kelly.

Walker played second fiddle to Vernon Davis with the 49ers, but he can line up at many spots having also played wide receiver and fullback in his career. He caught 21 passes for 344 yards and three touchdowns last season, but also dropped eight of 39 targeted attempts.

Casey is a true tight end-fullback hybrid. He put up career bests in receptions (34), yards (330), and touchdowns (3) in 2012.

There are several tight ends who may not fit the Eagles schematically or for reasons otherwise. Oakland's Brandon Myers is coming off a Pro Bowl-caliber season. Washington's Fred Davis and the New York Jets' Dustin Keller were injured last year.

Top Free-Agent Tight Ends

Player   Team   Age   Ht.   Wt.

Tony Gonzalez   Falcons    37    6-5    247

Brandon Myers   Raiders    27    6-4    250

Fred Davis   Redskins    27    6-4    247

Dustin Keller    Jets    28    6-2    250

Martellus Bennett    Giants    26    6-6    265

Jared Cook   Titans    25    6-5    248

Delanie Walker   49ers    28    6-0    242

James Casey   Texans    28    6-3    235

- Jeff McLane

Contact Jeff McLane at jmclane@phillynews.com or on Twitter @Jeff_McLane.

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