Could Eagles draft O.J. Howard when they already have Zach Ertz? | Bob Brookover

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Alabama tight end O.J. Howard runs a drill at the NFL football scouting combine Saturday, March 4, 2017, in Indianapolis.

Only six tight ends in the last 20 NFL drafts have been deemed worthy of a pick among the top 14 overall selections. A seventh, by many accounts, will be on the draft board next Thursday night when commissioner Roger Goodell conducts his annual hugfest inside a makeshift theater at the footsteps of the Philadelphia Art Museum.

It is entirely possible that Alabama's O.J. Howard, a 6-foot-5, 249-pound tight end with the kind of speed that is uncommon for a man of his size, will be off the board if the Eagles stick with the 14th overall pick. Even if Howard is available, it seems probable that the Eagles would go in a different direction given their defensive needs, especially at cornerback.

Pass up Howard, however, and you could be turning your back on one of those generational tight ends who keep defensive coordinators up all night wondering how they can stop such an athletically gifted monster in the red zone.

If Howard is available, the Eagles must decide exactly how they feel about Zach Ertz, their own No. 1 tight end who will enter his fifth season in 2017.

"Zach's first four years have been unreal production," Howie Roseman said Thursday during an Eagles media availability to discuss next week's draft.

"Unreal" is a bit of an over-the-top description by the Eagles vice president of football operations, but it is fair to say that Ertz's first four years in Philadelphia have been good, especially when measured against the other tight ends in the NFL.

Has he been elite? No. Top 15? Definitely. Top 10? Probably just outside of that group.

Examine the 16 tight ends taken in the 2013 draft and Ertz ranks third behind Kansas City's Jason Kelce and Washington's Jordan Reed, both of whom were selected in the third round. Ertz, the third pick of the second round and 35th overall, is ahead of Cincinnati's Tyler Eifert, the only tight end to be selected in the first round in 2013.

Can Ertz still improve? Absolutely. In fact, he seems hell-bent on it and is most excited that he will be working with quarterback Carson Wentz for a second straight season. The Eagles have had a different opening-day starter at quarterback in each of Ertz's first four seasons and the former Stanford star craves the stability that arrived with last year's draft selection of Wentz.

"The chemistry part of football is huge," Ertz said. "Whether that's a tackle playing with a guard or a receiver playing with a quarterback, I think the chemistry is important for any team to be successful. It wasn't the easiest situation going from quarterback to quarterback, but I thought as a team we did as well as we could have given the circumstances."

Wentz and Ertz became a formidable pair in the second half of last season. After missing two games early in the season with a rib injury, Ertz caught 55 passes for 569 yards and four touchdowns in the season's final eight games.

"I think if you look at the great tight end-quarterback relationships in this league . . . they were with each other a long time," Ertz said. "That leads to being on the same page regardless of the coverage. It's just that constant camaraderie where we're able to know what the other person is thinking without speaking about it."

The thing the Eagles most need Ertz to improve upon is his ability to catch touchdown passes. Only seven tight ends have caught more passes than Ertz during his four NFL seasons and only seven have compiled more receiving yards. But 17 tight ends have caught more touchdowns than Ertz since 2013 and six others have matched his total of 13.

"I want to be the guy in the red zone, believe me," Ertz said. "The first four years of my career I think the most touchdowns I've had in a year is four [twice]. We didn't have a lot of touchdowns in the red zone [in 2016] and that falls on us as players to get it done when we get down there and make plays when the ball is in the air."

The Eagles ranked 24th in touchdown scoring percentage inside the 20-yard line last season and Ertz's four receiving touchdowns led the team. That's pathetic from a team standpoint, but Ertz is convinced it will improve with the free-agent additions of Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith at wide receiver. Ertz, however, has to be a big part of that, too.

"Something I do pride myself on is making those tough and contested catches, whether it be in the red zone or on third down," he said. "I want to be more of a go-to guy in the red zone, but I have to earn that throughout the spring and summer. I have to earn that trust of the quarterback as well as Doug" Pederson, the head coach.

First we'll find out if Ertz has earned the trust of Roseman and vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas, who might just have the opportunity to take a difference-making tight end with the 14th overall pick.

bbrookover@phillynews.com

@brookob

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