After wide receiver DeSean Jackson left the Philadelphia Eagles for the Washington Redskins, second-year Eagles coach Chip Kelly was asked quite a few questions: How will this effect the team? Do you still think you have a shot at winning the NFC East? When the Philadelphia Inquirer asked Kelly in May how the Eagles plan to fill the void left by the three-time Pro Bowler, Kelly responded, “I think Zach [Ertz] can have a huge role.”
Philadelphia offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur further cemented Kelly’s thoughts by positing last week that Ertz “made the biggest improvement” among the team’s tight ends.
It’s no surprise, then, that Ertz carries high expectations heading into the 2014 NFL regular season. Just about all of them are warranted.
Ertz finished No. 21 in the NFL in fantasy points among tight ends despite playing as wingman to veteran starter Brent Celek. Losing Jackson gives the Eagles a void in the slot, which means Philadelphia will likely run more two-tight end sets in 2014. Kelly isn’t a greenhorn with packages involving extra tight ends, having played under a power-I formation in high school and creating the most innovative offense in college football history at the University of Oregon. The gap spacing that’s been his offensive nucleus thrives with agile blockers and pass-catchers at tight end.
As NFL.com reported, “Ertz played in just 24 percent of Eagles snaps over his first three NFL appearances, but took the field for 47 percent of downs over his final 11 games.” His progressions screamed high-volume targets even before he made the reported gargantuan leaps that his coaches are raving about.
His versatility allows him to potentially gain some playing time in the slot — mind you, he runs a 4.68 40-yard dash and has a 30½-inch vertical jump, per CBS Sports.
If they want to be considered among the game’s best, a tight end needs to have a noticeable leap in production after their first season. San Diego’s Antonio Gates hauled in 57 more catches, 575 yards and 11 more touchdowns in his second season; New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham hauled in 68 more catches, 954 yards and 6 touchdowns in his second season; New England’s Rob Gronkowski hauled in 52 more catches, 781 yards and 7 more touchdowns in his second season; Dallas’s Jason Witten hauled in 52 more catches, 633 yards and 5 more touchdowns in his second season.
Ertz can’t be considered elite yet, but after this season, if the reported progressions are made, he will be.
“I’m so confident this year in my abilities,” Ertz said this week. “Last year, I was a wide-eyed rookie. I wasn’t even here for OTAs. It’s a completely different situation. I have confidence in myself, and I think the coaches do, as well.”
Ertz hauled in 36 catches for 469 yards and four touchdowns despite just starting two games and playing only 41 percent of the Eagles’ offensive snaps a season ago. His projections are to nearly double in yardage and balls caught, and become a more integral component if not the most reliable pass-catching weapon of Philadelphia’s red-zone offense. A season ago, Ertz was targeted just 61 times while shouldering minutes with Celek. His catch rate (63.9 percent) and expected points added (0.34, No. 10 overall among tight ends who played in 12 or more games) vaulted him into something of a feature role for the upcoming season.
Ertz is is a matchup nightmare and has improved considerably since last season, when he was effective in an entirely new system. Not many linebackers can run with him, and if his blocking improves, Kelly will have no problem using him as prominently as he did during Ed Dickson’s final season in Eugene. Look for Ertz to be a targeted piece of Kelly’s inventive attack in 2014.
Josh Planos has had his work featured at Rivals, Bleacher Report, Denver Post, CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio, and ESPN Radio, and is currently a columnist for the ESPN TrueHoop Network, FanSided and The Pick and Roll. He loves interacting with readers via Twitter (@JPlanos).