League's Top TE a Challenge for Eagles D

PHILADELPHIA – Every week, it seems, there’s a new and even more difficult test for Mychal Kendricks. The Eagles’ second-year linebacker is usually matched up against the opponent’s tight end and he’s had to take on some great ones since he joined the Eagles last season, including Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez, San Diego’s Antonio Gates, Chicago’s Martellus Bennett, Denver’s Julius Thomas and Dallas’ Jason Witten.

Now Kendricks faces the best tight end in the business right now, Jimmy Graham of the New Orleans Saints. Kendricks won’t have sole responsibility for covering Graham when the Eagles and Saints meet in an NFC playoff game on Saturday night at Lincoln Financial Field, but a large portion of his night will be spent shadowing the man who has caught more passes for more yards and more touchdowns than any other tight end in the NFL this season.

“It will be a challenge this week,’’ Kendricks said. “But it’s a challenge every week in this league. There are a lot of great tight ends in the NFL and right now he’s probably the best, or at least the most productive.

“But that doesn’t change the way I approach things,’’ Kendricks added. “You definitely have to be aware that [Graham] is a tight end who runs like a [wide] receiver and he’s very big and athletic. But you can’t be intimidated by all of that, or else you’ll lose the battle before you even step out onto the field.’’

There were times Kendricks had a hard time keeping up with the Cowboys’ Witten last week – Witten caught 12 passes for 135 yards – but Kendricks also came up with two of the biggest plays of the game. He forced a fumble when it appeared the Cowboys were driving for an early touchdown and that turnover led to an Eagles’ field goal. Then Kendricks intercepted a pass intended for Witten and that turnover led to a touchdown that gave the Eagles a 17­­­­­­

“I think Mychal has played really well all year long, and I think sometimes a ball bounces your way in certain times,’’ Eagles coach Chip Kelly said. “But he’s come up with some critical turnovers for us this season at junctures where we really needed it. And that’s what we kind of learned as a group to expect out of Mychal. He’s really developing as a football player and played really well [vs. Dallas].’’

The Eagles expect and need Kendricks to play really well against New Orleans and Graham if they’re going to knock off the Saints and advance to play Carolina in the next round of the playoffs. They also know it won’t be easy. Graham has caught 86 passes for 1,215 yards – the only tight end in the NFL this season with more than 1,000 yards – and 16 touchdowns. Only one player in the entire league scored more, Kansas City running back Jamaal Charles, who finished with 19 TDs.

“He’s a great tight end,’’ Kendricks said. “He’s a tall, lengthy, basketball type of guy. Good speed, good agility, very tall. And I think [Saints QB Drew Brees] has a quick release, too, so getting back there is going to be difficult. But it still just comes down to making that play.’’

Graham isn’t just a basketball-type guy – he’s a bona fide basketball guy. Graham did double duty at the University of Miami and played in 104 basketball games with the Hurricanes, including 39 starts. He wasn’t much of a scoring threat (4.2 points per game), but the 6-foot-7, 265-pound forward did block 104 shots in his hoops career, eighth most in school history.

When asked how he would compensate for the size difference, the 6-foot, 240-pound Kendricks said he’ll battle Graham the best he can and, most importantly, he won’t back down.

“Jump, jump, try to get there,’’ Kendricks said. “I mean, you’re playing ball, man. You’ve just got to go for it. I mean, that [size] factor isn’t going to change, so you’ve got to study and know what his routes are, know what he’s going to be getting and attack his hands, try to separate him from the ball.

“It’s football, man,’’ Kendricks added. “People win at times on him, people lose at times on him.”

Contact Kevin Noonan at knoonan21@aol.com.

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