Eagles

Eagles-Cowboys rivalry nothing new for Jay Ajayi

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Eagles-Cowboys rivalry nothing new for Jay Ajayi

Things are kind of coming full circle for Jay Ajayi. 

After spending the Eagles' bye week trying to figure out where to live in Philly and bringing up his stuff from Florida, Ajayi gets to head back home to North Texas this week for his first Eagles-Cowboys game. 

He doesn't need anyone to explain the rivalry to him. 

"In Texas, it was like a split household," said Ajayi, who was born in London before moving to Maryland and eventually to Frisco, Texas, for high school. "My dad, he was on the Cowboys' side. My mom, she loved Donovan McNabb. That was like her favorite player, so she was always rooting for the Eagles. Obviously, when I went to the Dolphins, we all became Dolphins fans. Now it's an Eagles household all the way. It's exciting to be on my mom's team. She's excited and all that."

Ajayi said he already has about 20 tickets for his friends and family members but will have even more people in attendance for the game at AT&T Stadium. His coaches from Liberty High School have been texting him this week, telling him how excited they are for him to be back in Texas. 

Sunday won't be Ajayi's first game in AT&T Stadium. He actually played there as a senior in 2010, when his high school team lost to Bastrop, 38-24, in a Class 4A Division II playoff game. 

This Sunday, Ajayi will play just his second game with the Eagles after getting traded on Halloween. In the first game, he carried the ball eight times for 77 yards and a touchdown. His role will continue to increase as he gets more and more familiar with the offense.

"I feel like I have a really good grasp of our playbook," Ajayi said on Thursday.  

Ajayi was happy to play against Denver before the bye because if he hadn't, he would have really been "itching" to play by this point. Luckily, Ajayi was able to learn enough to at least have a limited role against the Broncos. 

And the bye week came at an optimal time. In between moving his stuff from Florida, Ajayi was able to hit the playbook hard.  

"Well, it's definitely, from the classroom standpoint, slowed down, a little more teaching," head coach Doug Pederson said. "And he can go back and even watch the Denver game and take personally himself, to have some takeaways from that game. Again, this is a veteran player who has played and understands football.

"We'll just continue to grow his package and grow the amount of plays and everything that he's doing with our offense and continue to keep him coming. But that's definitely a nice way to get him kind of caught up."

Ajayi has been a pretty fast learner since joining the Eagles, which hasn't been much of a surprise. 

Frank Reich told a story earlier this week: On Ajayi's first day with the Eagles, he had a meeting with running backs coach Duce Staley. The meeting, that Reich called a "crash course," lasted several hours. And after it was over, Staley walked out of the room and told the rest of the coaching staff, "We're good. We're good. This guy's going to be fine mentally." 

Reich said when he looks at the game plan for the Dallas game, there isn't a play the Eagles run that he wouldn't feel comfortable giving to Ajayi to learn. 

"He picked up on it really quick," Carson Wentz said earlier this week. "I've seen it a little bit just talking to him in meetings and we'll see as we get going out there in practice and everything. But, like I said, right away you could tell he was a sharp kid. He came in and started picking up on things, so he'll be a big part of our offense going forward."

During the bye week, Staley remembered his meeting with Ajayi at the 2015 combine. At the time, Ajayi was a prospect from Boise State who would eventually go in the fifth round to Miami. 

That day in Indianapolis, as recalled by Ajayi, Staley wanted to know about his favorite run play and his favorite pass play from the Boise State playbook. Staley wanted Ajayi to tell him everything about the plays, not just the running back's responsibilities. 

During the first week Ajayi was with the Eagles, he said he spent some long nights with Staley, as the two went over the Eagles' offense. 

"I pride myself on knowing the playbook," Ajayi said. "Being able to show him that [at the combine] left a mark on him and it's crazy how things come full circle again. Being here and having to learn all that stuff in that quick time, showing him I can grasp it and the plays." 

So there was Ajayi, the kid who was raised in Texas, by a mother who was an Eagles fan, learning the Eagles' playbook from her favorite player's teammate. That same teammate became the guy who was impressed by her son at the combine and who now gets to coach him two years later. As they head back to Texas. 

Everything really is coming full circle. 

Can Eagles afford to keep surging Trey Burton?

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Can Eagles afford to keep surging Trey Burton?

He doesn't get that many chances. When they come, he never fails to produce.

Welcome to the world of Trey Burton, who is essentially the Eagles' third tight end but is talented enough that he could probably start for a lot of teams out there.

With Zach Ertz out with a concussion, Burton had a career day Sunday, with five catches for 71 yards and two touchdowns in the Eagles' 43-35 win over the Rams at L.A. Memorial Coliseum.

Burton's previous high was 65 yards against the Redskins last year, but Sunday's game came on the heels of a 4-for-42 performance a week earlier in Seattle. Two weeks before that, he was 2-for-41 with a touchdown against the Broncos.

Here's a list of previous Eagles tight ends with 70 yards and two TDs in a game in the last 50 years: Charle Young vs. the Saints in 1973, John Spagnola vs. the Saints in 1985, Chad Lewis vs. the Giants in 2000 and Ertz vs. the Cowboys the last day of last season.

"I just did whatever needed to be done," Burton said. "Zach was out, which we don’t like, we love having Zach in there, he makes so many plays. But somebody needed to step up and Brent and I both did what we needed to do."

Brent Celek caught a touchdown pass and Burton caught two, making this the first game in four years in which Eagles' tight ends caught three TDs. In early December 2013, Ertz had two TDs and Celek had one against the Cardinals.

Burton is a remarkable story.

Undrafted out of Florida. Didn't catch a pass until his 26th NFL game. Didn't have a touchdown until his 32nd NFL game. Didn't surpass 50 receiving yards until his 38th NFL game.

But in 20 games since Week 8 of last year, Burton has 42 catches for 426 yards and four touchdowns.

That's awfully good production for a third tight end. And he still plays fewer snaps than Celek.

"We're probably the only team in the league that can have one of the best tight ends go down and not play in a game and feel the degree of confidence that we have in the guy that's stepping up for him as far as a route runner with Trey and then with the things Brent can do," offensive coordinator Frank Reich said.

"Trey deserves a lot of credit. He's got a great skill-set and is a great playmaker."

Despite averaging only 20 snaps per game on offense (along with 20 more on special teams), Burton is 12th in the NFL among all tight ends with four touchdown catches.

Nobody on the roster has better hands than Burton, who in recent weeks has made challenging catches seem routine.

“Celek and I are just good players," Burton shrugged. "I think Zach would do the same thing if he (played vs. the Rams)."

Burton could start for a lot of teams. But he said he doesn't get frustrated at his lack of playing time or targets.

“Can’t control it," he said. "I can’t pout, I can’t be angry. I’m sitting behind one of the best in the NFL right now. Love that dude to death, extremely happy for him and Celek, all the opportunities that they get. Couldn’t be happier for them."

Then there's his contract.

Burton is playing on a one-year, $2.746 million deal he got this past offseason.

It's a deal that really reflects his value on special teams as well as a situational tight end. And it's an unusual amount of money for a backup tight end.

But the way he's played so far this year, Burton would be in line for a long-term deal worth much more this coming offseason.

Will it be here? Will it be elsewhere? Will the Eagles cut ties with Celek — who's been here since 2007 — in order to free up money to keep Burton? Releasing Celek would clear $4 million in cap space the Eagles desperately need. Or can Howie Roseman squeeze all three tight ends under the Eagles' 2018 salary cap?

Celek turns 33 next month and is still a capable blocker and receiver, but Burton just turned 26 and keeps getting better.

It would be tough to let Burton go.

Whatever is going to happen, Burton says he isn't even thinking about it.

“No, not at all," he said. "I can’t control that right now.”

The Eagles have a few months before they have to make these decisions.

And there's a first-round bye and home-field advantage to clinch at the moment.

"Trey’s a tremendous athlete," head coach Doug Pederson said. "He works extremely hard. He’s a core special teams player for us. Really, Trey hasn’t probably gotten a lot of offensive plays this year, but when he has … he’s made the most of his opportunity.

"He did that (against the Rams). Real proud of the way Trey played."

Why Bryan Braman? No Wentz means smaller margin of error

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Why Bryan Braman? No Wentz means smaller margin of error

With Carson Wentz out for the season, the Eagles don't have much margin of error. That probably explains why the club brought Bryan Braman back on Tuesday.

That and the Eagles' special teams hasn't been so special for a while. In fact, breakdowns have become an almost weekly occurrence.

Over the last five games alone, the Eagles have allowed a kick or punt return of 39 yards or more three times. We can safely assume a blocked punt returned for a touchdown against the Rams on Sunday was the final straw based on the addition of Braman, a long-time special teams ace.

Braman spent three seasons with the Eagles from 2014 to 2016, playing almost exclusively on special teams. Ordinarily an anonymous role, he gained a reputation for frequently being the first man down the field on the coverage units.

It's no secret what the Eagles were looking for when they reached out to Braman this week.

"They need help on special teams," Braman said Wednesday after his first practice back. "They know that I'm a pretty high energy guy, and they're looking forward to having some help on coverage and bringing a little bit of energy — things that I've been known for."

Braman recorded 16 special teams tackles with a fumble recovery and a blocked kick in three seasons with the Eagles. He became a free agent and signed with the New Orleans Saints in August, only to wind up on injured reserve with a hurt shoulder before the season began, then released.

Listed as a linebacker, Braman typically doesn't play on defense at all, and he's 30, so there's not much upside beyond his niche. However, the seventh-year veteran is familiar with Eagles special teams coordinator Dave Fipp and should be ready to play immediately.

"That's one of the biggest reasons they brought me back is because I know the system," Braman said. "Been in it for three years, so it's not something that they would expect to have to bring me in and let me sit on inactive."

The Eagles needed somebody to help turn around a unit that has been uncharacteristically shaky.

Since Fipp was hired in 2013, the Eagles have consistently fielded one of the top special teams units in the NFL. That's not been the case in '17, largely because of injuries to return specialist Darren Sproles and captain Chris Maragos.

Obviously, the Eagles have suffered a drop-off in talent as a result. But there's also been a certain confidence or swagger missing, as the team has been forced to rely on more inexperienced players.

"I don't know if it's more so for the attitude, kind of give the young guys direction, let them know how things are supposed to be done," Braman said.

The Eagles could maybe get away with having less than stellar special teams when Wentz was leading the offense to 30 points every week. Now, the formula for winning changes — the Eagles will likely be more reliant on running the football, sound defense, and most importantly, eliminating momentum-altering plays.

In other words, the Eagles can't afford to let special teams beat them. And with Wentz landing on IR, a spot opened on the 53-man roster, so why not address arguably the biggest problem area?

Whatever the circumstances, Braman is glad to be back in the league.

"You kind of feel homeless when you don't have a team to play for," Braman said. "I'm just happy to finally have a place to call home."