Zach Ertz insists he hasn’t spent a lot of time reflecting on the 116 passes he caught last season, which was the most ever by an NFL tight end.
There will be plenty of time for that later, when his career is over and he’s run his last route. Memories like his 116-catch season will mean a little bit more to him then than it does now. Now, it’s just another building block.
“Reflection when you’re playing, I don’t feel that’s the time for it,’’ Ertz said. “It’s something that, when I’m done playing, I’ll be able to kind of take a deep breath and reflect on. Hopefully I’ll play my entire career here in Philadelphia and reflect after that.
“Right now, it’s just focusing on the next goal. Even when we won the Super Bowl, it was like, ‘What can we do next? What’s the next step to having that sustained success that we talk about here?’ ’’
Despite Ertz’s record output, the Eagles’ offense wasn’t nearly as productive last season as it was during their Super Bowl run in 2017. They gained virtually as many yards (365.3 per game compared to 365.8 the year before), but their point production dropped by nearly a touchdown a game (from 28.6 to 22.9).
They nosedived from third to 28th in rushing, and from fourth to 30th in yards per carry.
Their red-zone offense, the best in the league in 2017 when they converted 65.5% of their trips inside the 20 into touchdowns, plummeted to 17th (57.9).
Ertz wasn’t to blame for that. He’s one of the best red-zone receivers in the game. His eight red-zone TD catches were the fourth most in the league, behind only the Packers’ Davante Adams (12), the Lions’ Eric Ebron (10), and the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce (nine).
The Eagles made some key additions in the offseason that they hope will get the offense back on course and into the end zone earlier and more often. They added two potential difference-making running backs, trading for Jordan Howard and selecting Miles Sanders in the second round of the draft. And they signed wide receiver DeSean Jackson.
“On paper, we’ve got an explosive, explosive offense,'' Ertz said Tuesday after the Eagles finished the first of their 10 spring OTA practice sessions at the NovaCare Complex. "We just have to fine-tune everything and be on point.
"Bringing in a guy like Jordan Howard is going to help us immensely. A guy that you can give the ball to behind five really good offensive linemen and say, ‘Go to work.’
“And DeSean coming back is going to be big for us. He’s just so fast. The first play of the Tampa Bay game last year, he goes 70 yards [for a touchdown] on us. We haven’t had that since he left, honestly. [Jeremy] Maclin had it a little bit. But D-Jac is just another animal.’’
The addition of Jackson is intriguing in two respects. He not only gives quarterback Carson Wentz the most dangerous vertical threat he’s ever had, but Jackson’s speed also should open things up underneath for Ertz and the Eagles’ other two tight ends, Dallas Goedert and Richard Rodgers.
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“We feel like there should be, in theory, more space in the middle of the field because of a guy like DeSean,’’ Ertz said. "Oftentimes, the post safety will eye me up pre-snap a lot of times and know where I am. If they do that now, DeSean’s going to be able to run right past him if their focus is on me or Dallas or Alshon [Jeffery].
"On paper, it seems like the safety is going to have to back up a little bit. And oftentimes, there isn’t that extra defender that I have to worry about when I’m catching the ball. Which will lead to more explosive plays after the catch. I’m excited about that.''
Ertz averaged just 3.2 yards after the catch last season, finishing 32nd among tight ends who were targeted at least 30 times, according to Pro Football Focus. It was the lowest yards-after-catch average of his career.
With the rapid rookie emergence of Goedert, the Eagles cranked up their use of "12′' personnel (1RB, 2TE, 2WR) last season. They used the personnel grouping on 37.1 percent of their offensive plays, up from 23.4 percent the year before. Fifty-three of Ertz’s 116 catches were in 12 personnel. Another 10 came in 13 (1RB, 3TEs, 1WR).
Carson Wentz had 15 touchdown passes and just two interceptions with 12 and 13 personnel, compared to only six touchdowns and four interceptions with 11 (1RB, 1TE, 3WR) personnel.
“We feel we have a real good tight end room,’’ Ertz said. “Not only with myself, but Dallas and Richard Rodgers, who didn’t really get a chance to show what he could do last year with the injury early.’’
Pederson has said that he and his staff have come up with some ideas that they think will make the Eagles’ 12 personnel package even more effective than it was last year. Signing Jackson almost certainly is a big part of that.
“There’s things that we’re going to do, that we’re going to implement this spring in our 12 personnel to hopefully give us an advantage in the fall,’’ he said in late March.
It will be interesting to see what Ertz can do for an encore. He earned his second straight Pro Bowl invitation last season but was aced out in the All-Pro voting by the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce and the 49ers’ George Kittle. Kelce received 21 of the 50 first-place votes from a national panel of media. Kittle got 18½, and Ertz 10½.
“I’ve said it since my rookie year, which I can’t believe was seven years ago,’’ Ertz said. “I said I wanted to be one of the best to ever play the tight end position, not only in this organization, but anywhere.
“So, my [individual] goals always are going to be first- or second-team All-Pro, [and make the] Pro Bowl, every year. It just comes down to laying down that foundation in the spring. Putting the full bricks together so that I can build this house of a season.’’
The fact that he was snubbed by the All-Pro voters despite his 116 receptions clearly is something he is using as motivation heading into 2019.
“People are saying there are one or two guys that are better than me,’’ Ertz said. “My goal is to be the best. So I have a huge chip on my shoulder going into this year.’’
With a short offseason following the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory the season before, Ertz acknowledged that last season took a toll on his body. But he stayed healthy, playing a career-high 1,000 snaps and playing in all 16 regular-season games for the first time since 2014.
“I didn’t feel great when the season ended,’’ he admitted. “So I had to start from scratch and kind of rebuild my body again.’’
He’s done an impressive job of it. He said Tuesday that he weighs 250, about 5 pounds heavier than he usually is at this point. But the extra weight is muscle. He said he’s stronger than he’s ever been in his career.
"After the first five weeks of the offseason program, I hit a lot of [weight-room] numbers that I hadn’t really hit before,'' he said. "So I’m happy with where I’m at right now. This offseason probably has been the best offseason I’ve had since I’ve been in the league.''