Eagles' Jason Kelce practices what he preaches

Eagles center Jason Kelce is good in space, getting on linebackers fast. On this play - a LeSean McCoy rush for 19 yards on the Eagles' first play from scrimmage - Kelce and the right guard both pulled to the right. Kelce clobbered Bears linebacker Lance Briggs.
Eagles center Jason Kelce is good in space, getting on linebackers fast. On this play - a LeSean McCoy rush for 19 yards on the Eagles' first play from scrimmage - Kelce and the right guard both pulled to the right. Kelce clobbered Bears linebacker Lance Briggs.
Posted: December 26, 2013

There's more to Jason Kelce than just the beard, the lockerroom availability, and the leadership skills that Chip Kelly has spoken so glowingly about since nearly the first day he arrived.

The Eagles center is actually very good at his chosen profession.

Kelce can say all the right things and set the perfect example for his teammates, but if he can't block at a high level, then the message loses some of its patina.

"That's always, I think, the biggest thing," Kelly said earlier this week. "A lot of people can talk about it, but you have to be able to do it. He does it every day. I've always felt that you know you have a really good team when your best players are your hardest workers."

Now in his third season, after missing most of last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, Kelce is getting the sort of recognition that could land him in the Pro Bowl.

The Eagles have as many as eight players who could earn a trip to Hawaii in late January. But the NFL's second-ranked offense deserves its share of notice and the line is likely to be the group that is represented most.

Left tackle Jason Peters has been to five previous Pro Bowls and could get in on recognition alone. Left guard Evan Mathis was probably slighted the last two seasons, so it's likely a groundswell could push the nine-year veteran into his first Pro Bowl.

But Kelce may have to wait a year. He didn't have a full sophomore season to add to the resume and increase his exposure. And being drafted in the sixth round could also affect his chances in what in many ways is a popularity contest (players, coaches, and fans vote).

"What would it mean to me? Not much, to tell you the truth," Kelce said initially when asked about the possibility. He reconsidered his stance, though, after a pause: "It would be good. Obviously, it means a lot of people have respect for you."

Kelly has never missed an opportunity to sing Kelce's praises. He prominently mentioned his center's name during a preproduction meeting with Sunday Night Football announcers Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth, and when game time rolled around it didn't take long for NBC to spotlight Kelce.

"You get Jason Kelce as a pulling center," Collinsworth said, "it just adds to your offense."

Kelce smiled when told of the national attention. He's done little to self-promote. He understands as well as anyone that football is possibly the least individualistic of team sports, and the offensive line a chain-link.

If LeSean McCoy can't run through the holes the line opens or conversely the line can't open lanes for the running back, then he probably wouldn't be the league's top rusher.

But Kelce knows what a Pro Bowl would do in contract negotiations if the Eagles - and indications are they will - offer an extension this offseason.

"I do want a long-term commitment and I would love to play in Philadelphia," Kelce said. "I would love to play here as long as I can. But obviously, there are a lot of other things that come with that."

It's hard to imagine the Eagles as successful this season without Kelce just as it was easy to see why his absence in 2012 was one reason the season was torpedoed. After a rookie season in which Michael Vick was assigned primary responsibility for making the pre-snap protection calls, Eagles coach Andy Reid handed the job to Kelce before last season.

"But then when I went down," Kelce said, "that obviously ended it."

Vick, in the locker stall next to Kelce, overheard what the center said and chimed in: "That hurt," he said, shaking his head. "That hurt."

Dallas Reynolds, who had yet to play in the NFL, took over at center, and a line that was already without Peters, who was out for the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon, struggled the rest of the way.

This season, not one of the starting five has missed a game. And Kelce has been the centerpiece, making every protection call and also helping offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland set the blocking schemes for certain plays during the week of preparation.

"He's really almost the coach on the field for that group, and he takes a little pressure off the quarterback," Kelly said. "In some systems, the quarterback is making all those calls, and in our system our center does it, and it's because Jason can handle it."

There have been many reasons for Nick Foles' meteoric rise this season, but having Kelce under center rather than Reynolds, as the quarterback did late last season as a rookie, has gone virtually unnoticed.

"You'd think he was in the league for 20 years," Foles said of Kelce. "It gives you a sense a comfort, and when you have a guy like that blocking for you, it alleviates a lot of the anxiety."

Of course, the intangibles wouldn't matter as much if Kelce couldn't block. He's one of the league's best run- and screen-blocking offensive linemen in space, as Collinsworth mentioned. And his one-on-one and combination pass blocking have improved significantly since his rookie season.

There are other worthy candidates in the NFC for the two Pro Bowl nods at center, but perhaps not one as invaluable to his team.

"He's been huge," Kelly said. "I think everything that we get started on the offensive side of the ball starts with him."


jmclane@phillynews.com

@Jeff_McLane

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