Don't overlook Kelce's importance to the Eagles

"He's perfect for the position," the Eagles' offensive line coach said of center Jason Kelce.
"He's perfect for the position," the Eagles' offensive line coach said of center Jason Kelce. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 21, 2014

The Eagles file back into the NovaCare Complex on Friday; have their first practice of training camp on Saturday; and, by next Sunday, everyone in the Philadelphia area should be reasonably assured about the keys to success in the coming NFL regular season.

We are about to enter the "Five Most Important" time of year, that dripping, summer listsicle time when everything you need to know about the local football team can be explained in the "Five Questions That Must Be Answered" or the "Five Players Who Must Improve" or the "Five Country Music Concerts the Eagles Should Definitely Skip."

Heaven help us if that sixth question, the one that doesn't have to be answered, turns out to be the real one.

It's all harmless enough and a fine way to kill time for the next month or so, but it's worth remembering how important it seemed to be a year ago that Michael Vick have a healthy season, and that Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson provide a solid 1-2 receiving option for Chip Kelly's offense, and that Isaac Sopoaga solidify the defense at the nose tackle position.

None of that happened, of course, and the Eagles still found a way to fashion a 10-6 record and a playoff appearance in Kelly's first season. No one thought that getting 27 touchdowns and two interceptions out of Nick Foles was going to be necessary, but it's the things you don't expect that always turn out to be "Most Important."

That's why what really matters in this coming season can't be put into a meaningful list until it is over. And that's why no one will be talking about center Jason Kelce for a while. He doesn't throw the ball or run with it or catch. He just puts his head down and gives the ball to the quarterback. But if you want to make a true list of the vital players on the team, starting with him isn't a bad idea.

"This player, in my opinion, is the most underrated player around here," offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland said of Kelce. "Our players and our coaches know his value and how important he is to what we're doing, though. A lot of players [shy] away from the position, and if you ask them to play it, they're very uncomfortable. He's perfect for the position."

The way the Eagles operate on offense, the center has the responsibility for making the final decision on the line's blocking scheme, depending on the play call. He has to sift through information and suggestions brought to him by the other linemen, has to look at the defensive setup, and has to gauge what he thinks will work best given the individual personnel matchups. Then he has to put his hands down and accept that he will be essentially defenseless for a tick or two after snapping the ball.

No kidding, players shy away from the position. Kelce knows all about that. He was a linebacker as a younger player, not fully converted to the offensive line until midway through college, and not installed as a regular center until he was a senior.

"When I first got moved, I wasn't happy about it," Kelce said. "I was going from a linebacker making tackles to blocking. But as I evolved into an offensive lineman, I began to appreciate how much offensive linemen affect the game. I've really grown to love the position, and there's no question the center has to be a guy who takes control and takes charge. I was in that position on defense as a middle linebacker, so that helps me out."

A sixth-round pick in 2011, Kelce started all 16 games as a rookie before suffering two ligament tears in his knee during the second game of the 2012 season. He returned from that injury to start every game last season, along with the other four regular offensive linemen. That cohesion kept the offense grounded, and Kelce was in the middle of it all, making the calls and leading the line out into the open field as the Eagles transformed into a team that balanced downfield passes with screens and running plays.

"I get calls from other line coaches about Kelce, and they are like: 'This guy is unbelievable in space,' " Stoutland said. "Many times, those big offensive lineman in space look like cows on ice. They can't change direction or stop on a dime. Jason Kelce is totally the opposite of that. When he gets outside the blocking box - whether on a screen pass or a sweep or a play to the perimeter - he always takes the right angle at the right target."

It's easy to overlook the center on a football field but almost impossible to win without a good one. The Eagles might have the best, even if Kelce doesn't make any of the "Most Important" lists.

"I think he had a Pro Bowl year last year," said Todd Herremans, who lines up on Kelce's right hip. "You know how that works, and it might take a couple of years coming off an injury. You have to get into that fraternity. But he's the captain. He's going to tell you how he thinks it should be, and that's what you need at that position."

The Eagles have it, and they are lucky they do. Having Kelce at center might be among the "Five Things That Really Matter But No One Talks About." In fact, it might top the whole list.


bford@phillynews.com

@bobdfordsports

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