Eagles excited to finally use 3-TE set, hoping it 'presents a lot of problems'

Eagles excited to finally use 3-TE set, hoping it 'presents a lot of problems'

When Trey Burton became healthy enough to return for the Eagles’ second game of the season after missing the opener, it was bittersweet. 

Sure, he was getting back on the field, but he wouldn’t be joined by fellow tight end Zach Ertz, who suffered a first rib displacement. 

“I wish all three of us could be out there,” Burton said before Week 2. “Hopefully we’ll be able to get that somewhere during the season.”

Burton will get his wish this weekend. 

Thanks to the extra time the bye week provided, Ertz has completely recovered from his injury and will play Sunday against the Lions. So will Brent Celek. So will Burton. This will be the first time all year the Eagles will have their three tight ends healthy. 

And with all due respect to Matt Tobin, who filled in as a tight end on a few snaps, this will be the first time the Eagles will get a chance to show off their three-tight end set, which they worked on extensively during training camp. 

“The more tight ends, the better, in my opinion,” Celek said with a smile. “It’s great to just have the whole crew out there. We’ve worked so hard to be able to play with three tight ends. And obviously up until this point we’ve only had two going into each game. It’ll be nice. It’ll be fun, all of us going out there together.”

It’ll be a good week to get all three back, too. This season, the Lions have given up 22 catches for 247 yards and six touchdowns to opposing tight ends. They’ve given up a touchdown to a tight end in all four games this season. And they have given up 18 touchdowns to tight ends in their last 20 games, according to DraftKings’ Adam Levitan

Meanwhile, according to CSNPhilly.com's Reuben Frank, the Eagles are the only team in the league to have three tight ends with 50-plus receiving yards. 

Without having all three natural tight ends active, Tobin played 37 snaps (17 percent) in the first three games, which is a pretty high number to be in 13 personnel (three tight ends, one running back) given that one of them was playing out of position. 

For Tobin, it was an adjustment to a new position and it basically gave the Eagles an extra tackle on either the right or left side of the line. While Tobin was forced to report as an eligible receiver on these plays because he has an ineligible number, he wasn’t much of a threat to catch the ball. Teams knew he was staying in to block. 

Ertz, Celek and Burton are true dual threats. 

“This way, it kind of gets back to what I envisioned us being early in the season,” head coach Doug Pederson said. “Obviously in training camp, with three tight ends. I love using all three of our guys. … Looking forward to this week and hopefully future weeks with those three guys.”

Having three dual-threat tight ends can create a mismatch problem for defenses. Offensive coordinator Frank Reich said it could create extra gaps in the run game and motioning players could allow them to see how a defense responds to those shifts. 

The first question for a defense is what personnel to put on the field against the three-tight end set. 

“Yeah, it's tough to go nickel (package) against three tight ends,” Ertz said. “Most teams go base or possibly even bigger packages. And you have the ability to kind of spread [Burton] and I out. If you have three really good tight ends who can do both, which in our opinion we can, I think you'd have to ask (defensive coordinator Jim) Schwartz how he would game plan for it, but in our eyes, I think it presents a lot of problems.”

Celek said he isn’t sure how defenses will counteract the three-tight end set because they haven’t really done it before. While he thinks the team had the talent to do it in the past, when it had multi-dimensional player James Casey, it didn’t. 

Over the last three years, under Chip Kelly from 2013-15, the Eagles had three tight ends on the field for just 57 total plays — or 1.66 percent. 

Using three tight ends now not only creates matchup problems for defenses, but it’s also a way to make up for a receiving corps that leaves something to be desired. 

“I don’t really know if a lot of other teams just don’t really use the three-tight end sets or just they don’t have the personnel for it,” Celek said. “But it’s fun being in the room with these guys because we all wish the best for each other and we’re always pushing each other. It’s a fun group to be around.”

6 ways for Eagles to create cap space

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6 ways for Eagles to create cap space

The Eagles are coming off a thrilling season but there's a lot of work to be done. 

The NFL's new league year begins on March 14 and the Eagles must be under the salary cap by then. The problem is that based on projections, the Eagles are set to be more than $9 million over the cap, according to OverTheCap. So it's time for some maneuvering. 

The good news is that Howie Roseman's specialty has always been finding unique ways to get the Eagles out of cap trouble. There are ways for him to do it again.

Cut Torrey Smith 
Probably the easiest one. Smith was a great teammate and a solid addition to the Eagles' locker room, and he really stepped up his game in the playoffs, but it's probably not enough to bring him back. He just wasn't good enough last season, and cutting him would save the Eagles $5 million in cap room with no dead money. The Birds still have Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor, while Mack Hollins is entering Year 2. 

Cut Brent Celek
This one will hurt, but Celek can take away the sting if he decides to walk away as a champion. He's set to have a cap number of $5 million. That's just way too much for what Celek provides these days. By cutting him, the Eagles would save $4 million in cap space. So just between Smith and Celek, the Eagles will almost get back to zero ... but there's other work to do. They'll still need money to sign free agents and draft picks. 

Extend Brandon Graham 
Graham is entering the final year of his contract with a cap number of $8 million. He wants a new contract and deserves one. Good news: An extension would work for both sides. Graham would get more money long-term and the Eagles could get his cap number down this season. 

Re-work/cut Vinny Curry
Curry is coming off of probably his best season in the NFL but will have an $11 million cap number. That's tough to swallow, especially with Derek Barnett waiting for his chance to start. It seems likely the Eagles will ask Curry to take a pay cut or re-work his deal. If not, cutting him would leave $6 million in dead money but would also save $5 million in cap room. 

Trade Mychal Kendricks
If you remember, Kendricks actually wanted a trade last offseason. Good thing that didn't happen. Kendricks ended up being a big part of the Eagles' success in 2017. Depending on what happens with Nigel Bradham in free agency and with Jordan Hicks' Achilles recovery, trading Kendricks might again be an option. A trade would save $4.4 million in cap space. 

Trade Nick Foles 
This is such a tough one -- we explore it more herehttp://www.nbcsports.com/philadelphia/eagles/stay-or-go-super-bowl-mvp-nick-foles. But basically, Foles is a pretty amazing insurance policy until we know when Carson Wentz is going to be ready. If the Eagles do trade Foles, it would save them $5.2 million that they could certainly use. The problem is that by the time they know Wentz's status, free agency will be long gone and that cap space won't help this year. But it could help in 2019.

Stay or Go — Will both Grahams return?

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Stay or Go — Will both Grahams return?

As we continue our offseason series examining the future of the world champion Eagles, Reuben Frank and Dave Zangaro try to figure out who will be on the roster in 2018. 

We go alphabetically — Part 1 was Nelson Agholor to Derek Barnett, Part 2 was De'Vante Bausby to Brandon Brooks, Part 3 was Billy Brown to Vinny Curry, Part 4 was Ronald Darby to Zach Ertz. Today is Nathan Gerry to Corey Graham, with Nick Foles getting a section of his own.

Nathan Gerry
: Gerry, a fifth-round pick last year, seems to be a decent prospect as a young late-round linebacker. He was a core special teamer — his 180 snaps were sixth-most on the team — and on a roster where the linebackers are generally older guys (with the exception of oft-injured Jordan Hicks), Gerry is in a position where a roster spot will be there for the taking if he has a good training camp. I figure Gerry is here at least one more year just as a special teamer, especially with Trey Burton likely to leave and Corey Clement likely to play less on special teams next year as his role on the offense grows.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: As a rookie, Gerry switched from safety to linebacker but didn't get a chance to play much on defense as a rookie. That's still a work in progress. But on special teams, Gerry found his role. He played in 10 regular-season games and then played in every game in the playoffs, including Super Bowl LII. For now, he's just a special teams player, but that's good enough. 

Verdict: STAYS

Shelton Gibson
: Gibson, a fifth-round pick last year, got only 17 snaps on offense all year after a mostly disappointing training camp, and he caught just two passes for 11 yards all year. His lack of impact on special teams along with the Eagles' young depth puts his roster spot in jeopardy. Gibson will certainly be invited back to training camp, but for once, the Eagles have depth at wide receiver, and young guys like Mack Hollins and Johnson are well ahead of Gibson in the Eagles' eyes. Even if Torrey Smith doesn't return, Nelson Agholor, Alshon Jeffery and Hollins have spots locked up in 2018, and Gibson will be fighting an uphill battle.

Verdict: GOES

Dave: After a really terrible training camp, Gibson began to pick it up enough late in the summer and made the team. He was inactive for the first 10 games of the 2017 season before he began to play a small role on special teams down the stretch. His special teams ability was what gave him the eventual edge over Johnson to be active down the stretch. He still hasn't shown his potential as a fifth-round speed receiver, but he'll get another chance. 

Verdict: STAYS

Najee Goode
Roob: Goode was one of those underrated pieces that every Super Bowl team seems to have but nobody ever talks about. He's a terrific special teamer — he was third behind Kamu Grugier-Hill and Burton with 294 special teams snaps — and also got 200 snaps at linebacker and held his own defensively. Goode is a free agent, but he's been around since 2013, and you can probably keep him at minimum wage. There's tremendous value in that as well.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: It's pretty wild to think that Goode has been with the Eagles since 2013 and has appeared in 61 games with them. He isn't the best linebacker, but he's still a solid special teamer. He was on a one-year deal in 2017 so he's an unrestricted free agent-to-be. Goode is a 28-year-old who isn't a viable option on defense, but I never thought he'd be here this long and here we are. 

Verdict: STAYS

Brandon Graham
: Next year, this could become a very interesting situation. Graham has developed into one of the NFL's top outside pass rushers and had a career-high 9½ sacks this year and made his first Pro Bowl. But he turns 30 this spring, and the Eagles have Derek Barnett under contract with modest cap figures through 2020. It's clear the Eagles can't afford to keep both Vinny Curry and Graham, and Graham is obviously the superior player, but how much money is he looking for and how difficult will it be for the Eagles to keep him? I expect Graham to look for a long-term deal in the $12-13 million per year range. He'll get it. I'm just not sure where.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: The Eagles didn't give Graham a new contract last offseason but they did make a showing of good faith when they added some incentives to the last two years of his contract. But it's not a new contract yet. He's still their most disruptive pass rusher. His strip sack on Tom Brady in Super Bowl LII was the biggest play of the game. The Eagles are going to have to figure out if they're going to break the bank to keep Graham around for another contract. For now, though, he'll be a huge part of the 2018 season in a contract year. 

Verdict: STAYS

Corey Graham
Roob: Corey Graham is another one of those one-year contract veterans who made a big impact this past season both on defense and special teams. He will turn 33 before camp opens, but he's in tremendous shape and takes great care of himself. He's played in 171 of a possible 176 games in his 11-year career and shows no sign of dropping off. Graham is also a terrific natural leader who was extremely vocal during the Super Bowl run. The Eagles don't really have any young safeties knocking on the door, so as long as Graham is willing to accept another cap-friendly contract, I don't see a reason not to re-sign him.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: Signing Graham was one of the best moves Howie Roseman pulled off last summer. It was a pretty low-key move, but the team brought in a veteran safety who was great in the locker room and offered them a quality third safety. That allowed Malcolm Jenkins to slide into the slot when needed and allowed the Eagles to go with a smaller lineup in their dime package when necessary. That doesn't sound like a big deal, but without a ton of great linebackers, having the flexibility to go small was huge. Graham is a free agent again and the Eagles might try to go younger, but they should at least think about bringing Graham back. 

Verdict: STAYS