For the second season in a row, the Eagles have undergone little change at the tight end position in terms of personnel. In fact, the only difference between now and 2014 is Zach Ertz has since ascended to No. 1 on the depth chart over the immortal Brent Celek. Otherwise, it's still the two of them holding down the fort along with special teams ace Trey Burton.
That doesn't necessarily mean the spot is completely without intrigue. Will the Eagles carry three or four tight ends under head coach Doug Pederson? Will we see an increase in two- and three-tight end packages on offense? Can Ertz finally establish himself among the best tight ends in the NFL?
Although as far as how much better or worse the unit is, it's a little hard to say when it's all the same players. Breakout seasons are as unpredictable as veteran declines, and frankly the top two players can go in either direction. So what ultimately is our prediction for 2016?
For the past three seasons under Chip Kelly, the Eagles flat out refused to use a fullback. While Pederson may not carry a dedicated lead blocker on his roster either, he will line up a tight end in that position from time to time.
Whether it's third-string tight end and underrated Swiss Army knife Trey Burton or practice squad upstart Chris Pantale cracking the 53-man this year, the Eagles will deploy a fullback from time to time — and any fullback, even a part-time fullback, is better than no fullback at all.
How many times have we watched the Eagles' ground attack get stuffed at the goal line and wondered why not use a fullback down there? Wouldn't it be a nice wrinkle to see a fullback sneak out of the backfield and catch a pass in the flat in a short-yardage situation? It's not as if there will be a fullback on the field the majority of the plays or even exceptionally often, but the role still serves its purposes. Welcome back to conventional football, folks.
Honestly, how could the same group of players get any worse? Sure, Celek is another year older, which might be a bad thing, but Ertz and Burton are another year older as well, which is undoubtedly a good thing. You would really have to nitpick to find an aspect where the unit will show any significant signs of taking a step back. We're not going to do that for a change.
Truth be told, 2015 was not the greatest season for Celek. At one point considered maybe the best blocking tight end in the NFL, his performance in that area appeared to slip quite dramatically. It also just happened to be Celek's least productive year since 2008, when he was first taking over as the starter. Now 31 years old, it would be easy to project further decline.
On the other hand, despite his numbers, Celek showed there's something left in the tank down the stretch. When he was allowed to get out into passing routes, he had some big games, like his four-catch, 134-yard romp against the Miami Dolphins in Week 10, or a seven-catch, 79-yard day versus the Tampa Bay Bucs the following Sunday. Entering his 10th season in the league, Celek can still get open, and he still makes the tough grabs.
Even if his blocking has dropped off some, Celek can continue to be effective in this area as well, perhaps more so in a traditional offensive scheme. True, his days of pushing for a 1,000-yard season are probably through, but there aren't many teams who can claim to have a better No. 2 tight end on their roster.
Zach Ertz's ceiling
Ertz finished 2015 on an absolute tear, setting an NFL record for tight ends over the final four weeks of a season with 35 receptions for 450 yards. Projected over a full 16 games, that would be 140 for 1,800 yards, which would be among the all-time best numbers for wide receivers, not to mention shred the history books at his own position.
Obviously, something that insane isn't likely to happen, but Ertz definitely arrived last season. Some might argue it was a fluke, pointing to the fact that he managed just 40 catches for 403 yards over the other 11 games, or only two touchdowns all year. Others saw it as a breakthrough for a much ballyhooed second-round draft pick after missing essentially the entirety of training camp with a core muscle injury, forcing him to rehab while building a rapport with a new quarterback as the weeks progressed.
Now entering his fourth season, Ertz is finally the clear starter at tight end. At 6'5", 250 pounds with 4.7 speed, no one questions his physical ability or athleticism. The question is can he put the tools and experience together and produce the star-making campaign everybody has been waiting for? Ertz might be a top 10 tight end in the league right now, but can he break into the ranks of the elite? All we know for certain is there's nothing left to hold him back.
BETTER OR WORSE?
Unless Celek completely falls apart, there's no reason this same group of tight ends should fare any worse. Actually, given Ertz's continuing development and the move to a real NFL offense, it seems there's mostly only room for growth. Add in the underrated Burton heading into his third season and little-known Chris Pantale battling for a roster spot, and there's so much talent here. How much better remains to be seen and largely depends on Ertz, but this looks like a unit on the rise in 2016. BETTER