Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Stuck in the Middle with You

Cincinnati’s Reggie Kelly could star in one of those old American Express commercials: “Do you know me? I’m the tight end for a one-win NFL team. But come Sunday, I’ll probably collect more yards than All-Pro Eagles running back Brian Westbrook. See you then!”

If the trend holds, Kelly will feast on the middle of the Eagles’ defense, specifically linebackers Chris Gocong, Stewart Bradley and Omar Gaither. The 5-4 Eagles have allowed opposing tight ends to notch two 100-yard games—with four other tight ends topping 63 yards against the Birds.

That’s six players with at least 63 receiving yards in nine games—while Westbrook has topped 63 yards rushing just twice. The Eagles have made stars of the likes of Kevin Boss, Randy McMichael, and Vernon Davis.

It’s no secret that coach Andy Reid undervalues linebackers. He has drafted just three linebackers earlier than the third round in his 10 NFL drafts—and only one since 2001: Matt McCoy (63rd overall in 2005), Quinton Caver (55th in 2001), and Barry Gardner (35th in 1999).

Those non-descript names aren’t exactly a ringing endorsement for drafting linebackers. But just because Reid’s linebacker picks have been poor doesn’t mean he should abandon the position or relegate it to the later rounds.

That’s a strategy that has handicapped the Eagles, while the Cowboys (All Pro DeMarcus Ware) and Redskins (All Pro LaVar Arrington, starter Rocky McIntosh), among others, have used their high draft choices on top college linebackers.

Granted, Reid did draft all three Eagle starters, but none was among the top 70 players taken in his draft; in other words, a big-name impact player. And Bradley, from Nebraska, is the only linebacker Reid has taken from a powerful BCS college conference higher than the fifth round since 2001.

That kind of neglect at linebacker has allowed opposing tight ends to eagerly await Eagles games. The opposing tight end has led his team in receiving yards six times this year. As a group, they’re averaging 4.7 catches and 65 yards a game, compared to 3.4 catches for 40.6 yards for Eagle tight ends.

As for the Eagles' tight end spot as the team prepares for the Bengals, coincidentally, Cincinnati—the college, not the NFL team—provided the Eagles with the one tight end who has had a starring role so far. Maybe backup Brent Celek, who caught six passes for 131 yards against the Seahawks, should introduce himself to Reid.

“Do you know me? I hold the Eagles’ regular-season record for receiving yards in a game by a tight end, and I’m the only Eagles tight end to top 100 receiving yards this season. You know where to find me—on the sidelines next to you. See you then!”

Linebacker note:
Reid is not alone in Eagles history when it comes to drafting linebackers. In the last 40 years, the Eagles have drafted just two linebackers in the first round. Jerry Robinson, ex-UCLA assistant Dick Vermeil’s 1980 pick out of UCLA who became a 1981 Pro Bowl choice, and 1970 draftee Steve Zabel from Oklahoma.

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