I've rehashed this Chip Kelly statement a couple of times now, but it remains one of the most interesting quotes so far this offseason:
"We are going to go three tight ends in a game. Now, if they go three linebackers, we spread them out and if they go DB's, we smash you. So, pick your poison. Simple game, isn't it? You guys thought coaching was hard. They bring little guys in, you run the ball. They bring big guys in, you throw the ball."
There's a lot to unpack in this short passage, including possible insight into Kelly's overall offensive philosophy: hit 'em where they ain't. It also confirms (as if the Zach Ertz pick didn't say this already) that Kelly wants to emphasize versatility with multiple tight end sets. However, at its most literal level, I think it's a lie: I don't believe the Eagles will base any sort of offense around having three tight ends in the game at once.
It's an easy fib to tell at this point in the offseason, especially when you need to explain away a crowded tight end position. Brent Celek has been an above-average starter for the last few years, a consistent threat in the passing game who isn't afraid of the dirty work. Kelly doesn't want to say that he's looking to replace the veteran leader. Meanwhile, the team signed James Casey to play an expanded H-back role and drafted Ertz just three picks into the second round. One might say there aren't enough snaps to go around if Kelly hadn't used some expert hand-waving.
Alright, so you say, what evidence is there that the team can't or won't use three tight ends at the same time? Plenty. Let's start with current stats. The New England Patriots are considered one of the most tight end-friendly teams in the NFL. Some, like Chris Brown, have even suggested that Kelly's pro offense will look more similar to the Patriots' than his own college spread. Like the Eagles this year, last year's Patriots squad ditched the fullback in favor of more tight ends/H-backs. However, they rarely used three such players at the same time. Looking at snap counts from Pro Football Focus, we can see exactly how often each Patriots tight end was on the field game-by-game. The players themselves aren't consistent due to injury, but in only 9 of 18 games of their games was the second-most active Patriots tight end on the field for even half of all offensive snaps. The third-most active tight end averaged only 15% playing time.
However, even individual play counts don't properly convey how rare it was for the Patriots to line up with all three tight ends. According to the NFL's own game stats service, New England used three or more tight ends on the field together in only 6.4% of all snaps. That doesn't mean that Kelly couldn't play that combination more. It's the most cliched statement of the offseason that we don't really know what his offense will look like. But the Patriots' unwillingness to go to three tight end sets with any regularity underscores the difficulty with such a formation.
Kelly suggests that he can do anything out of it, but that's not really true. Keeping Celek, Casey, and Ertz in the game together means you only get two other skill players. One of them is obviously a running back like LeSean McCoy. Then you get one wide receiver -- presumably DeSean Jackson or Jeremy Maclin. Between the 20s this lineup lacks any ability to stretch the field. The three tight ends are valuable, flexible pieces. They can pose match up problems against linebackers and safeties in the pass game and cornerbacks in the run game. But Ertz is the fastest, and he only runs a 4.67 forty. With only one wide receiver to deal with, the defense can bring an extra man down into the box to thwart both the short passing game and the run. It's not an ideal match up for the offense -- compared to a two tight end set that keeps the defense honest with down-the-field threats on the outside while adding flexibility in the slot that a player like Jason Avant can't provide.
The three tight end lineup is fantastic for one thing: the red zone. Bring a dangerous rushing threat together with a bunch of big targets and the Eagles might actually be efficient down by the goal line. But I remain skeptical that any offense will use the formation much beyond that. Two tight ends should quickly become a bread-and-butter package for this team, and with injuries and substitutions, having three "starters" on the roster isn't a bad thing at all. But let's not get carried away beyond that. If Ertz progresses quickly, the Eagles likely will be looking for a suitor for Celek 11 months from now.
PS: There's an unwanted player out in free agency who has a similar athletic profile as Casey, and might become an even more versatile weapon with some innovative coaching. It's too bad the Eagles have already denied interest.
Photo from Getty.