The Eagles have some important long-term questions looming over the tight end position

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The Eagles have one of the most intimidating tight end groups in the league. Zach Ertz has a team-leading seven touchdowns, tying with Alshon Jeffery, while his 663 receiving yards see him on pace to set a new career high. The potential for a 1,000 yard season is there and the sustenance at quarterback has elevated the play of Ertz to a whole new level. But a look deeper into the depth chart reveals a sense of uncertainty.

To begin with, there’s Brent Celek. Contracted through next season, there is no questioning the 32-year old’s impact both on and off the field. A legendary Eagle that may one day end up in the team’s Hall of Fame, Celek is deep into the heart of his eleventh season as an Eagle and as an NFL pro. A relatively recent contract extension implies he will retire with the franchise who drafted him and to whom he gave some of the most iconic moments in the last decade. But how the team will replace such an important fixture is another debate.

Celek’s role in the offense is beginning to diminish. He’s been on the field for just 39.9% of snaps this season, a 10% decrease over last season. With 8 receptions for 100 yards, Celek has proven that he still has that raw trucking ability, but he’s primarily seen action as a blocking tight end since the arrival of Doug Pederson. He plays a very important role, let that be known, but at the very most the Eagles will likely have one more full season of contributions from the Cincinnati product.

So who’s beneath him on the depth chart? That’s where the questions begin to surface. Trey Burton has worked his way up the Eagles depth chart since his arrival in the NFL. Undrafted out of Florida, Burton began his tenure behind James Casey, Brent Celek and of course Zach Ertz. As time has passed, his role in the team has only risen…and his responsibilities with that.

Leading the team in special teams tackles to begin with, Burton would then progress and earn some offensive opportunities, like that beautiful reception against the Lions in 2015. It wasn’t until last season where the value of Burton was truly recognized.

The Eagles made a groundbreaking decision to trade Sam Bradford to the Vikings and propel Carson Wentz into the starting role just heartbeats before the season began. Wentz spent that offseason working as the third-string quarterback, building up a rapport and bond with Burton that can be seen on the field to this day, and off of it through the AO1 foundation and sentiment.

After receiving for 327 yards in his first year under Pederson and catching his first NFL touchdown against the Bears, Burton has gone on to receive for 153 yards this year along with another pair of touchdowns. The problem is that most of Burton’s opportunities stem from bad situations. Injuries to Ertz or Celek or potential offensive setbacks push Burton onto the field where his athleticism and versatility shines. Burton has been a security blanket when Ertz is forced to miss time, be that for a portion of the game or for an entire one.

Ertz was forced out of the game with a concussion against the Seahawks and it was Burton who once again filled in. Notching 42-yards, he showed the Eagles that he can be a reliable cog in Doug Pederson’s offense. The problem is, there’s no long-term security.

Burton was signed to a one-year tender during the offseason, meaning he will be left to wade through free agency waters should the Eagles decide to let him walk. If they do, then Ertz will be the lone wolf remaining.

The Eagles have done a brilliant job in building a tight end corps that over the last three years has stood the test of time. Through coaching changes, adversity, success and struggles, the tight end group has progressed into one of the most dangerous in the league that has all bases covered. If the Eagles want to sustain that, they simply have to find a way to at the very least retain Trey Burton.

Regardless of how that decision pans out, the Eagles will need some support behind Celek for at least the next season. The Birds have a tendency to develop tight end prospects and the wildcard here is Shepherd’s Billy Brown. An undrafted prospect who stole the hearts of many during preseason. He could potentially fill in for Burton, but if Ertz is to continue his dominance for years to come, he will need some support behind him. That flame is beginning to burn out and while the Eagles have plenty of avenues to explore when it comes to bringing in some fresh blood, it’s something they will have to prioritize in the offseason.

 

Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

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