Clay Harbor’s optimism about making the Eagles is equaled only by his doubt.
“Really, for me, it’s a coin flip at this point,” the fourth-year tight end said after Tuesday’s practice “I think there’s a chance that I could be here. I think there’s a chance that I could end up being released. For me, right now, 50-50, honestly assessing the situation.”
Three years after being drafted in the fourth round to back up Brent Celek, Harbor is fighting to preserve his spot on the roster.
He tumbled down the totem pole this offseason after the Eagles signed James Casey, an H-back who can play fullback and tight end, and drafted Stanford rookie Zach Ertz in the second round as Kelly loaded up on inside receiving threats for his tight end-centric offense.
On Tuesday, Chip Kelly said tight end is one position where tough personnel decisions await before Saturday’s 4 p.m. cutdown deadline. He called it a position of strength and lamented that at least one good player would have to be released or traded.
Kelly, who doesn’t carry a traditional fullback, could keep four or five tight ends, or he could also go thinner at wide receivers by keeping Harbor, who has been practicing at receiver for most of the month because of injuries that left them thin on wideouts.
“We’ve got three really good tight ends there and I’m kind of a tight end-receiver,” said Harbor, who will play wide receiver for the first half Thursday night against the Jets and move to tight end for the second half. “It comes down to whatever they decide to keep. If they decide to keep four, I think I’ll be here. If they decide to keep three, I think I’ll be released. For me it’s 50-50 right now, the way I see it.”
Harbor later clarified his remark to suggest that he could still be released if the Eagles keep four tight ends and decide to go with Emil Igwenagu, the second-year pro from UMass who’s an above-average blocker and can play fullback.
He also discussed the potential of being traded, which seems plausible given the recent rash of injuries to tight ends around the league.
Harbor, as candid as ever, chuckled a few times at the irony of the situation. He believes that he’s developed this summer into the best tight end he could possibly be, but timing isn’t on his side.
“Physically, I’m the best player I’ve ever been,” he said. “With that being said, I think this is the first time that I think there’s a really good chance that I’m not going to make this team. But all I can do now is go out Thursday, play to the best of my ability and let the cards fall where they may.”
When they drafted Harbor out of Missouri State with one of four picks in the fourth round of the 2010 draft, they touted his athleticism and envisioned the three-time Division I-AA All-American blossoming into another inside threat who could stretch the defense alongside Celek.
Harbor added muscle and got his body conditioned for the NFL but never developed into a consistently productive receiver or blocker. Although his receptions climbed steadily, from nine as a rookie, to 13 as a sophomore and to 25 last season, Harbor is averaging just 9.2 yards per catch in his career and has caught only four touchdowns.
This spring, after the additions of Casey and Ertz, the coaches asked Harbor to learn some outside linebacker techniques in preparation for “emergency situations,” but even Harbor had interpreted the request as the first sign of being pushed out the door.
Another indication came when they asked him to fill voids at wide receiver following season-ending injuries to Jeremy Maclin and Arrelious Benn, but Harbor views the offensive versatility more positively.
“Athletic players in general have a leg up in this offense,” he said. “Tight ends get a lot of chances to make plays, do big things on the offensive side of the ball. That’s where I feel my strengths are, when I’m given the opportunity.”
But the fact that he’s being asked to play all four quarters against the Jets most likely means the Eagles either need more evaluations as he dukes it out with Igwenagu or they’re giving Harbor as much opportunity as possible to get good film for a potential release or trade.
“It’s funny how it works,” he said. “You get better, you get better, you get better and now I feel like I’m the definitely the best player I’ve ever been, I’m a more confident player than I’ve ever been, even when I watch myself on film.
“But … there’s different situations. I’m the lowest [on the depth chart] I’ve ever been, and I’ve never really felt to be in this situation to where going into the last game I still have no idea if I’m going to be here or if I’m going to be somewhere else. It’s definitely a different feeling.”