How Eagles' Zach Ertz has grown in his fifth season

Eagles tight end Zach Ertz along the sidelines after catching a touchdown pass against the Giants on Sept. 24.

Zach Ertz heard you. When there was a criticism about his blocking, he heard it. When the “if healthy” qualifier became attached to his name, he heard it. And when he was scorned after failing to block a defender during a Carson Wentz scramble against the Cincinnati Bengals last season, he definitely heard it.

“I was in the dumps a little bit,” Ertz said. “That definitely put things in perspective.”

That moment helped spark a player who has turned into the Eagles’ top offensive weapon and one of the best tight ends in the NFL. Through four games this season, no tight end has been better than Ertz. Few wide receivers have been more productive, either. He entered this week ranked third in the NFL in receptions and fifth in yards. At 26, he’s in the prime of his career, and he’s playing like it entering Sunday’s game against the Arizona Cardinals.

Ertz also has developed into a respectable blocker, a skill not considered a strength even when he signed a five-year, $42.5 million contract before last season. In coach Doug Pederson’s first statement about LeGarrette Blount’s 68-yard bullying rush last week, he lauded Ertz’s “crack-back” block. Was it a block Ertz would have made five years ago?

“I probably wouldn’t have been in the game five years ago if it was a run [play],” Ertz said.

It illustrates Ertz’s growth since the Eagles drafted him in the second round in 2013. Ertz arrived in Philadelphia as a mature 21-year-old with a Stanford education and enticing skills for a tight end, but only a rudimentary understanding of what awaited him. Coming to Philadelphia required an adjustment for someone born, raised, and educated in Northern California.

Enough labels have been put on Ertz, but “ignorant” or “apathetic” should not be among them. He knows what’s going on around him and cares a great deal. When his toughness was questioned last December, it affected him. It also stimulated the development of a player who is coming into his own five years into his NFL career – with a clear mind, a healthy body, and a spiritual awakening.

“Early in my career, if I didn’t get the ball or if something would happen, or the media would say something, I’d take it personally,” Ertz said. “But now I know what I am. I’m very confident in my abilities.”

Camera icon YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Tight end Zach Ertz catches the ball over Los Angeles Chargers  linebacker Jatavis Brown during the Eagles’ latest victory. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Mind

Ertz’s maturity overshadowed the reality that he was young and still relatively naïve when he came to Philadelphia.

“The cliche is there – I was a boy, and now I’m a man,” Ertz said. “That first season was tough.”

Brent Celek was only 28 and entrenched as the Eagles’ starting tight end. Ertz’s draft status suggested a prominent role on the team, but he was careful not to offend the veteran tight ends – a dance that lasted for much of the first three years of Ertz’s career.

“Early in my career, it was unclear who was the No. 1 tight end,” Ertz said. “And I never wanted to overstep in that regard because he had been here so long.”

But Ertz appreciated how Celek treated him. He heard horror stories of the way veterans viewed rookies at their position. Celek witnessed it and vowed that he would never be that way. Ertz credited Celek with helping him develop as a run-blocker, and when it eventually became clear that Ertz deserved more snaps, Celek made it an easy transition. That allowed Ertz to feel more secure in his standing on the team.

One of the differences between now and his rookie season is his ability to shake off a mistake.

“Don’t live and die with every play,” Ertz said. “Early in your career, when you’re playing 50 percent of the snaps, if you have a bad play, it would mentally crush you.”

Ertz’s marriage to the former Julie Johnston, a U.S. national soccer team star, has also helped his growth. When the Eagles drafted Ertz, Johnston was still in college in California and they dated from opposite coasts. He proposed in February 2016 and they wed this summer. Ertz has peace of mind as a married man, even if it’s a long-distance marriage at this stage of their careers. Julie came to Philadelphia two weekends ago for the Giants game. Ertz went to Chicago, where Julie plays for the NSWL’s Chicago Red Stars, during the weekend between the preseason and regular season. It’s two-to-three-day intervals every two to three weeks.

“I don’t have the right to say to her to stop playing because I get lonely, per se,” Ertz said. “It’s a short [time] in our life. In 5-10 years, we’ll have an opportunity to be with each other each and every day.”

Together, they understand what it takes to build a career in sports. Ertz said they can lean on each other when pressure mounts, and they both know how to manage life in the spotlight. It’s still odd for Ertz to be in a celebrity relationship. He doesn’t view her as the Olympic athlete and she doesn’t view him as the NFL tight end. They met as ambitious college students and try to maintain that sensibility with each other.

“We were nobodies then,” Ertz said. “Our relationship isn’t built on the other person’s success in their respective sport.”

Body

Ertz’s receiving production during the last two seasons placed him among the top five tight ends in the NFL, but he was plagued by injuries in both campaigns. He was steadfast about finding a way to remain healthy. Ertz changed his training routine this summer to work with his college trainer, who Ertz said emphasizes functional movement. He figured he didn’t have soft-tissue injuries in college.

“I went back there and dedicated myself to getting healthy,” Ertz said. “I thought I did a great job this offseason putting in that work.”

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Zach Ertz trying to fend off a Bengals defender last season. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer

His receiving ability and route-running have never been in question, although he’s benefiting in 2017 from a second year with Carson Wentz and the addition of Alshon Jeffery as an outside receiver. When Ertz and Jordan Matthews were the top options, the middle of the field could be cluttered. With attention diverted to Jeffery on the outside, Ertz has faced more single coverage this season. It’s a matchup the Eagles wanted. Ertz is on pace for 104 catches and 1,304 yards this season. Those might not be his end-of-year numbers, but his consistency is noteworthy; he has tallied at least five catches in 11 of his past 13 games.

“I want to be the guy on third down, whenever the coaches need a play, they call my number,” Ertz said. “I worked very hard to get to this point.”

The run blocking has been a recent evolution. Multiple times last Sunday he blocked star defensive end Joey Bosa out of the play. He was tired of coming off the field in running situations. Celek and tight ends coach Justin Peelle helped refine his blocking skills. Ertz could have built a nice career as a tight end who annually catches 70-plus passes, but he didn’t want to be viewed as a liability.

“That’s the one thing that I appreciate about Zach is I think he’s gotten a bad rap about his run-blocking,” Pederson said. “He’s gotten stronger. He prides himself in getting better. We know that he’s not going to be the primary guy all the time. … And it was probably a weakness of his last year, those cut-off blocks, but … he’s really improved.”

Before the 2015 season, Ertz met with 14-time Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez. Ertz learned about having a “routine to greatness,” and being “addicted to the process.” (It regarded training, not the Sixers’ rebuilding efforts.)

Ertz cared about his body since arriving in the NFL, but he didn’t settle on a routine until recent years. Now, Ertz is maniacal about it. He and Julie were even featured in ESPN the Magazine’s Body Issue.

Ertz stretches nightly. He does yoga every Friday. He baths with Epsom salt three times a week. He runs on an underwater treadmill three times each week, too. And he continues to search for what to add and improve.

“It’s the best I’ve felt since I’ve been here,” Ertz said. “I just understand what I need to do in order to perform.”

Spirit

After criticism mounted following the Bengals game last season, Ertz marveled at some of his teammates in the locker room. They seemed so steady, unaffected by passionate fans or pesky reporters. Wentz,  Matthews, and tight end Trey Burton’s devotion to faith and the “Audience of One” mantra that Wentz delivers resonated with Ertz.

“They never got too high, never got too low,” Ertz said.

Camera icon CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Carson Wentz (left) getting a high-five from tZach Ertz before the season opener against Washington. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

He was already moving in that direction through conversations with Burton, who has played with Ertz since 2014 and was a groomsman at Ertz’s wedding. His thoughts after the Bengals game added to the awakening. It taught him “to have a bigger purpose than just football.” Burton saw the way Ertz cared so much about what outsiders say about him, and he now sees Ertz unmoved by the opinions of others.

“He’s kind of found who he is,” Burton said. “He’s a man who knows what’s important in life. He’s a man who has his priorities in line.”

Backup quarterback Nick Foles played for the Eagles during Ertz’s first two years, left for two seasons, and came back during the spring. He always thought Ertz was mature. What he now sees is a married man more in touch with his faith and entrenched in Philadelphia.

Ertz used to return to California when he could. He and Julie bought a home in Philadelphia last season, and he now considers this his home. He thinks the 21-year-old Ertz who first arrived in Philadelphia would be impressed with what he has become.

“Now I know what I am,” Ertz said. “It’s a different frame of mind than a couple years ago.”