Secret Superstars: Philadelphia Eagles
The Philadelphia Eagles, in conjunction with the St. Louis Rams, surprised NFL fans with a quarterback trade on day one of this year’s free agency period. They also let LeSean McCoy go, almost acquired Frank Gore, did acquire DeMarco Murray and Ryan Matthews. They let Jeremy Maclin go to Kansas City and drafted Nelson Agholor to take his place. When Chip Kelly does not greatly alter an offensive position group it is worth noting, so it stands out that he kept his top two tight ends, Brent Celek and Zach Ertz. Celek has been a stalwart contributor for the Eagles for eight years, but it’s his younger counterpart, Zach Ertz, who will be the Secret Superstar for the Eagles in 2015.
Ertz played three years at Stanford University in which he was a consensus All-American, an All-Pac 12 first team selection, and a finalist for the Mackey Award. Scouting reports heralded his speed, ball tracking, adjustment to passes and ability to win contested catches. His weaknesses included losing leverage while blocking.
He was drafted by the Eagles with the 35th overall pick.
Putting up a solid rookie season, Ertz ending the season ranked ninth overall among tight ends in our grading, seventh in receiving, and his Yards Per Route Run ranked sixth at the position. While his first year was good enough to be PFF’s Honorable Mention Rookie Tight End of 2013, it was only prelude for what he did in 2014.
The beginning of the 2014 season was one of extremes for Ertz. Week 2 against the Colts was his highest-graded game of the season and it featured a handful of notable catches. Among those was this gem: (4Q 1:56) Ertz, lined up in the slot, runs between the slot and outside cornerback in man coverage, creating space for himself toward the sideline, where Foles throws it. Ertz brings the ball down, and turns to gain a step on his corner. The safety, however, is on him and brings him down after a 24-yard gain.
This fine game, however, was followed by his worst two of the season, where his receiving grade fell off in both weeks, as did his pass blocking in Week 3, and his run blocking in Week 4. But he recovered nicely from these doldrums, and posted only one more negative game the whole season.
For the season, Ertz produced only four negatively-graded games as a receiver, resulting in a +7.5 grade for the season, which was the fourth highest for tight ends. He ran routes on 397 of his 603 snaps, but his blocking improved during the year. During the first half of the season he allowed three total pressures and earned a pass blocking grade of -2.4, but he didn’t allow a pressure in the second half of the season and posted a +0.5 as a a pass blocker.
His run blocking was also encouraging, improving from a first half grade of -0.2 to an impressive second half grade of +4.3. In the final game of the season he earned his highest mark in that department — illustrated on the first play of the fourth quarter, where Ertz engaged the defensive end to create a nice edg and help the runner to a 21-yard gain.
Third Year’s the Charm
Ertz had a very good first two seasons in the league. As an NFL sophomore, he had the fifth-highest overall grade among tight ends, was tied for the fourth-best drop rate, was the second-most targeted on deep passes, had the third-best deep pass catch rate, and is tied for fifth in Yards Per Route Run.
He would be a viable option in any offense, but the Eagles are not Receiver rich. While they did add Nelson Agholor in the first round of the draft, their most targeted Receiver in 2014, Maclin, is now on a different roster. For the rest of the 2014 Receivers, only Jordan Matthews (98) and Riley Cooper (91) were targeted more than Ertz (86). Ertz also was second only to Maclin in receiving grade for the team, with Matthews and Cooper well behind.
The main unknown is what Chip Kelly has planned for the Eagles’ offense. With a group of talented runners aboard, and his preference for three-WR sets, the scheme may limit Ertz’s targets. Ertz lines up in multiple positions, though, and has not been disposed of after two years in Kelly’s offense, which is an accomplishment and an endorsement.