Even in 2015, a tumultuous year, the Eagles’ tight ends were a bright spot. Zach Ertz rebounded from a concussion suffered in week 11 against Tampa Bay to finish the season with his four best performances of the year, culminating in a 152 yard day against the Giants.
Ertz' 853 yards receiving were good for seventh in the NFL among tight ends. Between them, Ertz, Brent Celek, and Trey Burton combined for 1,305 receiving yards, a total that would have led the league.
While the talent and depth at receiver has been a question mark since the team parted ways with DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, the quarterbacks can rest assured that they have weapons aplenty in the middle of the field.
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Through camp, the Eagles have been experimenting more with three tight end sets to maximize the talent that takes the field. Normally, you'd see that package arise near the goal line to try and pound in the rock.
As offensive coordinator Frank Reich explained to the media Saturday, that's not what the Eagles are limiting themselves to, "Three-tight end personnel package is a really strong package for us, just because of the versatility of those players. They’re all very instinctive route runners; they can all block."
"Those corners are used to covering small, fast guys. Now all of the sudden you get someone like Trey Burton or Zach Ertz who are big guys with big catching radiuses. We feel like Zach has a great feel in route running. He just knows how to create leverage; he knows how to use his body; he has a big catch radius. I came in here thinking, ‘Hey, Brent is our blocking tight end.’ But the guy knows how to run routes. He’s a really smart route runner."
That ability to go up and win contested balls will be important for a team focused on maintaining the deep ball as a threat without a speedster like Jackson on the roster. Doug Pederson acknowledged as much Friday, "I do think there are some guys that can stretch the field, but I also think you do it by scheme. [It] doesn't always have to be the fastest guy down the field."
Ertz has often been listed as the player most ready to explode the past few seasons, and while his production has been solid, that corner has yet to be turned. This training camp however, a different player, one more familiar for his work on special teams, is taking the limelight.
“Trey [Burton] really has [stood out]. He has made so many big plays out here. That’s what you look for,” Reich said, “Trey is like a wide receiver out there, and you get him out there and he’s got the speed, he’s got natural instinctive moves for a tight end.”
When asked to comment on undrafted free agents standing out in camp, Pederson immediately jumped to Burton despite his third-year standing, “Well, he's not an undrafted free agent, but Trey Burton has had a nice camp so far.”
Burton was in fact an undrafted free agent in 2014. While he has only three receptions for 54 yards in his NFL career, he did rack up 976 yards receiving at Florida in a college career that involved a bit of everything, including a six-touchdown game.
The Eagles are so talent-rich at tight end, the position group has been mined to bolster two other positions on the roster. Chris Pantale is the leading candidate to be the Birds’ first fullback in several years, and undrafted rookie Dillon Gordon has made the switch to offensive guard from tight end.
Reich spoke positively of both Pantale’s aptitude for fullback, “When you play that position, you’ve got to be physical; you’ve got to love contact. And he’s shown that. You almost have to see it like a tailback, because the tailback is following you most of the time. He’s really shown good vision in that,” and Gordon’s transition to guard, “He’s showing all the right signs of a guy who can develop into a legitimate offensive lineman in this league and making that transition. And then mentally he’s extremely sharp. You’ve got to be to play up front.”