The Philadelphia Eagles open training camp with a well-established trio returning at the top of the tight end depth chart. Since 2014, Brent Celek, Zach Ertz, and Trey Burton have handled the Eagles’ tight end duties (with the help of James Casey in 2014), and, barring injury, that threesome appears poised to continue their roles into the 2016 season. Joining those veterans in camp will be former Jet Chris Pantale and undrafted rookie M.J. McFarland out of the University of Texas at El Paso (sort of, more on that later).
In each of Andy Reid‘s three seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, he carried three tight ends. First-year Eagles head coach Doug Pederson served as Reid’s offensive coordinator for those three years and has spent his entire, brief professional coaching career under Big Red’s tutelage. It’s not assuming too much to expect a lot of similarities in how Pederson and Reid organize their rosters. If Pantale and McFarland hope to make this team, they’ll have to really wow coaches in camp and show their ability to contribute on special teams, as well. With that being said, let’s see who the new faces are and what to expect from the familiar ones.
Pantale played high school football for Wayne Valley High School in Wayne, New Jersey and went on to play college ball at Boston College. After five years at BC, Pantale went undrafted and was signed by the Jets in 2013 and bounced between the practice squad and active roster throughout two season, but has only recorded stats on special teams. In 2015, while with the Bears, Pantale battled meningitis and did not see the field. Being 26 years old with no recorded stats at his position, the odds of Pantale making the Eagles 53-man roster seem slim. During OTAs, however, the Eagles ran Pantale with the first team as a fullback for some plays. If he is able to impress coaches at that position, Pantale could be a surprise survivor of final cuts.
McFarland began his college football career with the University of Texas at Austin Longhorns, but left for UT El Paso after seeing little use in the passing game in his first three years. McFarland never played for UTEP, however, due to a failed NCAA drug test. McFarland maintains that he failed the test due to a supplement that was recommended to him to help him recover from a concussion he suffered in spring workouts. At Texas, he totaled 19 receptions, 178 yards, and 3 touchdowns in 19 games. Despite those weak stats, McFarland previously showed his ability as a pass catcher in high school – being named an all-state receiver and setting the El Paso El Dorado High School records for receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns. He may find a place in the NFL, but it’d likely take an injury for that place to be in Philadelphia, this year.
Burton continues to develop from simply a reliable special teams player to potentially a legitimate offensive option. After seeing no targets in 2014, and just four in 2015, look for Burton’s role to grow in 2016. At 6’3 and 235 lbs, Burton lacks the traditional size of tight ends in the NFL, but it’s possible Pedereson could split him out wide or in the slot to create mismatches. The aforementioned “tight end as a fullback” idea could also come into play with Burton, so it will be worth watching during camp and the preseason to see if the Birds experiment with other roles for him.
“Will this be the year Zach Ertz finally breaks out?” is getting to be a cliche around the NFL. Ertz has been a solid player and has grown his role and his stats each of his last three seasons. However, with his high draft selection (second round, 35th overall) came some very high expectations to which, for various reasons, he has yet to live up to. Ertz has never been a very effective or eager blocker. As that makes up about 75% of most tight ends’ job description, Ertz has simply not been on the field as much as Brent Celek – a far more willing and able blocker. If Pederson chooses to use Ertz more like a receiver the way that New England uses Rob Gronkowski or New Orleans used Jimmy Graham, he certainly has the athleticism and ability to put up the gaudy numbers that many expected out of him. After a slow start in 2015 due to a preseason groin injury that required surgery, Ertz finished the season strong with 35 receptions for 450 yards in the final four games (including catching all nine targets for a monster 152 yard performance in week 17 against New York). If he picks up where he left off, this may the last year that fans wonder about when Ertz will breakout.
Entering his tenth season with the Eagles, Celek has been almost impossibly durable and reliable. Celek has played in 149 NFL games and missed just one. His stats continue to wane – he wasn’t the fastest man on the field at 22, let alone 31 – but Celek’s sure hands, steady blocking, and veteran leadership make him a valuable piece of what Pederson will try to build this team into. As Celek’s offensive role continues to make way for Ertz, and perhaps Burton, he’s not a guy you’ll want on your fantasy team in 2016, but he’s exactly the guy you want to have in a young locker room that is about to transition to a new franchise quarterback.
What do you expect from the tight ends this season? Will Ertz ever be an NFL superstar? Let us know on Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments below.