Zach Ertz

Lucky for Nick Foles, his go-to guy is back

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Lucky for Nick Foles, his go-to guy is back

Nick Foles won't see many familiar faces when he makes his first start for the Eagles in over three years, but at least one of his go-to receivers is still around.

Foles hasn't been in the lineup for a week, and the Eagles quarterback is already getting reinforcements. Zach Ertz cleared the concussion protocol on Wednesday and is expected to play against the Giants on Sunday, adding a valuable weapon to the offense, and reuniting a dynamic duo in the process.

"I feel good, ready to go," Ertz said Wednesday following his first practice back. "Tough week last week obviously not being able to play, but it was the right decision at the time and I'm excited for this week."

Ertz was a rookie when Foles took over as the starting quarterback in 2013, posting a modest 36 receptions for 469 yards and four touchdowns. Yet Ertz really only began to flourish once the job belonged to Foles permanently.

The fifth-year tight end — perhaps on his way to his first Pro Bowl this season — even caught his first NFL touchdown from Foles.

"That was a long time ago, against the Raiders when he was fricking throwing everyone touchdowns," Ertz said this week. "We had a lot of good games together."

Their connection was almost instantaneous. At the time, Brent Celek was still the starter at tight end and getting the bulk of the snaps. Ertz still managed to catch five touchdowns in the Eagles' remaining nine games, including one against in the Saints in the playoffs. Ertz had five or more receptions three times during that span.

"That's my first year in the league, his second year in the league," Ertz said. "He was playing at an unbelievable level. He's still the same quarterback, and we're excited to have him."

Their rapport continued into 2014. Ertz had 25 receptions for 358 yards with two touchdowns when Foles was lost for the season with a broken collarbone.

Ertz acknowledged a quarterback change at this stage of the season can be difficult. Clearly, It's not uncharted territory, either. Even when Foles finally nailed down the job in '13, it was already Week 9, after weeks of going back and forth with Michael Vick.

It took time for the Eagles to make the right decision under center, but they eventually got it right, and it wound up being a historic season. Foles tied an NFL record with seven touchdown passes in a game against the Raiders, and made NFL history at the end of the season with a 27-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

The transition from Carson Wentz to Foles may not go that smoothly, but Ertz has reason to feel confident everything will be fine.

"It's definitely not the easiest thing switching quarterbacks, but there's a lot of familiarity with Nick," Ertz said. "The coaches understand what Nick does well. (Eagles coach Doug Pederson) has been with him for a long time.

"With Nick, he throws such an easy ball to catch that there's not a real adjustment period in terms of catching the ball. Some quarterbacks throw a tough ball to catch, but Nick's ball is really easy to catch and it makes it easy for receivers."

Foles already survived his first relief appearance, and that was without Ertz. With the tight end and security blanket inactive against the Rams, Foles was able to lead the Eagles on two scoring drives that ended with field goals, including the game-winner.

Again, that was sans Ertz. Imagine what Foles might be able to do with one of the Eagles' top receivers.

Ertz has 57 receptions for 663 yards and seven touchdowns this season. He was on pace for 1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns earlier in the campaign but missed a game for the concussion, and another with a hamstring.

Maybe Ertz can still get there over the final three weeks with Foles at the helm. He certainly isn't afraid to push the ball down the field anyway.

"He loves the slinging the ball," Ertz said. "That's what he's been doing his whole career.

"He's a great quarterback. We're excited to have him. I don't think there's anybody else in this situation that we would rather have."

Either way, Foles-to-Ertz is going to feel like a blast from the past. Maybe that connection can help keep the Eagles rolling in December and through the playoffs.

How Eagles receivers really feel about QB switch

How Eagles receivers really feel about QB switch

When we last saw Nick Foles, his wide receivers were Jeremy Maclin, Jordan Matthews, Riley Cooper and Josh Huff.

Oops. We can't forget Jeff Maehl.

The Eagles have turned over their entire wide receiver corps since trading Foles after the 2014 season. Nelson Agholor arrived in 2015, and Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith and Mack Hollins this year.

So when Foles goes out there Sunday afternoon to face the Giants at M&T Stadium, he'll be playing alongside wide receivers he's barely played with.

"I've watched them run their routes all year, I've been able to practice with them at different times to throw them routes, so you just sort of build that database," Foles said. 

"I'm not going to always be able to get the reps Carson gets, but I'm always standing behind the play, I'm always watching film, I'm always watching his drops, I'm always doing drops in the background, so you just go out there … and play."

Since he got here in March, Foles has worked with the scout team at practice, facing the starting defense and working mainly with receivers like Marcus Johnson, Hollins and Shelton Gibson.

But starting Sunday, he'll be out there with Jeffery, Agholor and Smith — a group he's completed six passes to in his career.

That's why this practice week was so important. These guys don't have a huge history together.

"Moving forward, these guys can really spend time together, Alshon and Nick, Torrey and Nick, (Zach) Ertz and Nick and everybody on offense, can spend time this week kind of getting to know each other a little bit better and understanding it's going to be different," head coach Doug Pederson said. 

"The ball is going to come out a little differently. It's going to be in a different spot. It's just the nature of the game. So it behooves them to spend as much time at practice this week to get on that same page."

Foles has played with all three tight ends — Ertz, Brent Celek and Trey Burton. In fact, he and Celek were together for three years. And Foles and Ertz hooked up on 49 catches for 643 yards and six touchdowns in the 20 games they played together in 2013 and 2014.

But for Foles and the outside receivers, this is all new.

"It's just us getting repetitions with him at practice, that's all it is," Jeffery said. "My comfort level is pretty high with Nick. I'm extremely confident in Nick, we all are. 

"Nick's been in there throwing every once in a while, they switch it up, so I have a pretty good feel for him.

"On Sunday, we'll see. We'll just keep practicing and go out there and let Nick have fun and we're going to do a great job rallying around him."

Smith, coming off his first 100-yard game as an Eagle, said people are making too much of Foles' lack of experience with the Eagles' wideouts.

"I think it's overrated, especially when it's a guy who's been here the whole offseason," Smith said. "He knows the system. It's not like we haven't been in practice with him. 

"We know how he throws the ball. It's not going to be as tough a transition, in my opinion. I've gotten plenty of reps with him in there. They rotate him in there in 7-on-7. The 7-on-7 periods, we're all in there, so the quarterbacks get reps with all the receivers. 

"I'm very comfortable with Foles and for him, it's really just him getting the reps and getting back into it. He's ready. He looks pretty good."

If anybody is concerned, they're not letting on.

"It's basically just talking to them, what they like, how they feel, what they see this week," Foles said. "And it'll come really fast."

Can Eagles afford to keep 3rd-string stud Trey Burton?

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Can Eagles afford to keep 3rd-string stud 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."