Zach Ertz, budding talent, needs to see more playing time

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Of the Eagles’ pass catchers, Zach Ertz made the biggest impression during three scrimmages with the Patriots this week.

Most of the tight end’s work came against the second team defense. But when the Eagles went with two or three tight-end sets against New England’s starters, Ertz got open nearly as much.

His play through all of training camp -- which ended with Thursday’s light practice -- and the first preseason game has suggested that Ertz needs to see more time with the first team.

But whether Eagles coach Chip Kelly needs to see improvement in the second-year tight end’s blocking, or he doesn’t yet want to promote him over veteran Brent Celek, or he’s waiting to unveil an offense that is heavy with two tight ends, Ertz will have to wait.

“Chip is the guy to make the call on that. I think I’ve shown that I can play, or hopefully play at a high level this year,” Ertz said. “Whether he wants to use me or not, it’s up to him. We also have a lot of playmakers at the receiver position when they’re healthy.”

Right now, the Eagles aren’t healthy at receiver. Starters Jeremy Maclin (hamstring) and Riley Cooper (foot) are not slated to play Friday night against the Patriots. Missing both isn’t ideal, but it may permit Ertz more playing time and allow the Eagles to get more plays with “12” personnel (two tight ends) on film.

Kelly is an equal opportunity play-caller. He uses personnel groupings based on the defense. But he’s also going to play to his strengths. And if Celek and Ertz (and even third tight end James Casey) are picking up yards and scoring points, then Kelly will employ more “12” than “11” (one tight end and three receivers) personnel.

History also suggests they will be more available. Celek and Ertz didn’t miss a game last season to injury. Celek has missed only one game over seven NFL seasons. Neither has suffered a setback this camp. Maclin and Cooper have missed 21 and eight games, respectively, over their careers.

“I think [more two tight-end sets] is always there depending upon what the defense gives us, like always, but especially with all the injuries that might be something we do more of,” Celek said. “We’ll see.”

Ertz’ snap counts increased as last season progressed, but he played only 41 percent of the time to Celek’s 77 percent. Casey was on the field only 14 percent, but saw more playing time later in the season because he was a better run blocker than Ertz.

“Last year was a big learning patience type of year, and it’s kind of been the same thing for me each and every day,” Ertz said. “I have to focus on getting better. … But I want to play. Believe me I want to play. I want to be out there every play.”

Ertz’ blocking has improved. But so, too, has his ball catching, which should be tantalizing for Kelly because Ertz was already so far along.

“I think he’s done a great job, especially with how he releases off the ball,” Celek said. “Obviously he’s got great ball skills. He’s a fast kid. Once he gets downfield, he’s very [fast].”

He’s a potential mismatch nightmare for opponents, especially if they try to cover him with a linebacker.

“That should be a matchup win for us, especially on a longer pass, because I’m probably faster and I’m more comfortable running routes than they are covering,” Ertz said.

The Patriots even had starting defensive end Chandler Jones, who can drop, sometimes covering Ertz downfield. The 6-foot-5, 256-pound Jones said that the 6-5, 250-pound Ertz was quicker than he thought he would be.

“I feel like he’s more of a skill player than anything,” Jones said. “He runs his routes very well. I had the opportunity to cover him for the two days of practices and he’s been a handful.”

Ertz can also be split wide, like the Eagles lined him up to start last Friday’s Bears game. He caught a short pass for two yards. He did his most damage, though, (three catches for 58 yards) in the middle of field.

“I think I showed last year that I could play out wide or in the slot,” Ertz said.
“The in-line stuff hasn’t come as natural, but I feel like I’ve improved mightily in that area, running routes from a three-point stance and blocking, in particular.”

If he’s split wide, though, defenses will have to choose between sending a linebacker or a defensive back to cover him. If it’s a linebacker, he should have the passing advantage. If it’s a defensive back, he should have a blocking advantage if the Eagles run or toss a screen to that side.

On Thursday, the Eagles installed a red zone play with three tight ends and Ertz split wide. Quarterback Nick Foles went to Casey underneath both times. But Ertz could be Foles’ No. 1 red zone target because he can get separation and also fight off defenders for contested balls.

“I feel no matter who I’m going against,” Ertz said, “that I can get open in a number of ways.”

Contact Jeff McLane at Follow on Twitter @Jeff_McLane.