Zach Ertz poised to have, yes, a 'breakout' season

Zach Ertz, despite missing two games with a displaced rib, led the Eagles in catches (78), receiving yards (816) and touchdowns (four) last season. Among NFL tight ends, he finished fifth in catches and receiving yards and tied for ninth in touchdowns.

He dropped only two of 101 targets and only three out of 40 qualifying tight ends had a lower drop percentage. He had seven receptions of more than 20 yards and only two other tight ends had more.

Ertz wasn’t voted to his first Pro Bowl in 2016, but a full slate of games might have strengthened his case. Was he perfect? Not by any means. But there has been an overwrought counter argument against Ertz over the last two years, and it has centered on his lack of yards after the catch and a significant statistical increase in December vs. the rest of the season.

Maybe it’s just a Philadelphia contrarian thing. Or maybe it’s because Ertz signed a five-year, $40 million contract before the 2015 season. Or maybe it’s because many still see his potential for even greater production – the athleticism, the size, the soft hands and the crisp routes.

Ertz has grown tired of the “breakout season” narrative, because back-to-back seasons with more than 75 catches and 800 yards suggests that the fifth-year tight end has already broken out. But he also understands that expectations are great, and that losing can negate even the best of years.

“I love the high expectations,” Ertz said during a recent interview. “Believe me, I want to lead NFL tight ends in catches, yards and touchdowns every year. That’s my goal. But the ultimate goal is to win football games. I’ve said in the past that I’ve had over 800 yards the past two years and we’ve been a 7-9 football team.”

Poll

Which team has the best chance of making the playoffs?

2016 Receptions/Tight Ends

Games Rec.  Targ. Yards Yards/Gm. TD
Dennis Pitta, Balt. 16 86 119 729 45.6 2
Travis Kelce, KC 16 85 117 1125 70.3 4
Kyle Rudolph, Min. 16 83 132 840 52.5 7
Greg Olsen, Car. 16 80 128 1073 67.1 3
Zach Ertz, Eagles 14 78 107 816 58.3 4

 

Ertz is just one piece of the puzzle if the Eagles are to return to the playoffs. But a change in offensive personnel with the addition of wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith on the outside and the subtraction of Jordan Matthews on the inside could lead to – wait for it – a breakout season for Ertz.

And, one would assume, more Eagles wins and the postseason accolades that have thus far eluded the 26-year-old.

“I don’t really have a lot of expectations. Obviously, we added a lot of pieces on the outside,” Ertz said. “I want the ball, but it isn’t going to dictate how I go out there and run my routes. I know in years past I’ve kind of gotten down if I don’t get it, whereas now I feel like I’m in a little different frame of mind – let everything come naturally.”

Ertz had what could be considered a quiet summer. It wasn’t as if he didn’t stand out during training camp, but with the comings and goings at other offensive positions, and with having reached a certain regarded level, he drifted under the radar.

In the first two preseason games, Ertz had only one catch for 11 yards. But in the third game against the Dolphins, he pulled in three catches for 44 yards. Two of the grabs were vintage Ertz – a sprawling 14-yard slant and a 12-yard grab in which he contorted his body for a Carson Wentz pass thrown a smidgeon behind.

But it was the middle one – an 18-yard reception in which all the yards came after the catch – that hinted at the possibilities for this season should he improve on what has in the past been a subpar yards after catch (YAC) average.

“If I just average an extra yard or two after the catch for every catch,” Ertz said, “I’m going to add 150 yards to the overall stat.”

Ertz’s YAC average dropped in each of his first four seasons from 4.39 yards to 3.88, 3.59 and 3.37. Last season, he averaged just a 2.3 YAC in his first 10 games. In the 10th game, Ertz ducked out of the way of the incoming Vontaze Burfict during a Wentz scramble. He was criticized, and said that in retrospect he should have probably blocked the Bengals linebacker.

In his final four games, Ertz’s YAC jumped to 5.0 yards. He said his improved health had more to do with the disparity than anything.

“The rib injury messed me up, for sure,” Ertz said. “I wasn’t really healthy until later in the season. And I wasn’t myself until later after that. [His YAC] was just one of the things that was nitpicked and magnified. I think I can make plays after the catch in this league. I’m looking forward to showing it this year.”

Harping on his YAC does take away from all that Ertz does well. It’s not his strength like it is for Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce (7.45 YAC in 2016). Ertz has always had more of a receiver’s skill set. He said that he might line up outside a little more than previously.

But with Matthews traded to the Bills, and replacement Nelson Agholor still an unknown, and Jeffery and Smith likely to draw more attention on the outside, Ertz should benefit.

“I’ll probably have more targets with Torrey and Alshon,” Ertz said. “I think that’s the reason you bring in those guys because [defenses] are not able to focus primarily on one area of the field, with where in the past … since [Jeremy] Maclin left, we’ve been an inside-the-numbers team.”

Ertz was only 12th out of 32 tight ends in routes run from the slot last season, but he was second in catches. In the two games Matthews missed last December/January, Ertz caught 22 passes for 218 yards and three touchdowns.

Overall, he caught 40 passes for 443 yards and three touchdowns in the final five games. In his last three seasons, Ertz’s December/January averages (7.2 catches for 81.7 yards) vs. the rest of the season (3.5 catches for 39.6 yards) were striking.

While the criticism of that disparity hasn’t made much sense – are games in December and January of lesser value? – the fact that Ertz has needed time to develop chemistry with a new quarterback each year has. He doesn’t have that excuse this year.

“I think just having the quarterback for the same year is going to be big,” Ertz said. “I’ve never had it since I’ve been here, especially somebody as talented as Carson. He’s the best quarterback I’ve had since I came into the NFL.”

_________________

Sign up for "Early Birds," our new Eagles newsletter by Zach Berman, at philly.com/earlybirds.