It’s contract time for Zach Ertz, but why has the Eagles tight end been neglected? | Jeff McLane
Zach Ertz should be next in line for a new contract from the Eagles, but what does his underuse this season say about that future?
If the Eagles follow their blueprint for extending the contracts of core, homegrown players, Zach Ertz should be next in line for a restructured deal, one that could conceivably be agreed upon over the next several weeks.
But would it make sense for the Pro Bowl tight end to negotiate now considering the dip in his numbers this season? Ertz has six other seasons of ascending production to counter any argument about his current worth.
The Eagles’ usage of him in the offense, however, especially compared with 2018, suggests that the anonymous quotes that were cited by ESPN last December about Carson Wentz over-targeting Ertz could have some lingering effect on game-planning, play-calling, and execution in 2019.
Ertz, 29, was asked if he thought there was any correlation.
“When that report came out last year it was tough, obviously,” he said Wednesday. “Wasn’t good for anyone, really. But it kind of is what it is. I can’t control where the ball’s thrown, and I can’t control where I am in the progression.
“My job is to be wherever they put me … and try to make plays on the balls that are there.”
Ertz’s targets per game this season (8.6) are comparable with 2016-18 (8.5), when he became the Eagles’ leading receiver. But he’s seeing significantly fewer passes than he did last season (11.1), when he set an NFL record for receptions by a tight end with 116.
He was targeted more than any other tight end (156 times) in the NFL in 2019, but he also caught a career-high 74.4 percent of passes thrown his way. The most significant statistical decrease for Ertz this season, though, may be his catch ratio. He has caught only 58.3 percent of pass attempts compared with an average of 69.4 in his first six seasons.
It’s difficult to pinpoint an exact reason for the regression. The overall inconsistency of the offense would have to be one factor. But Ertz hasn’t been as involved early in games, on shorter pass plays, and in the red zone as in previous years.
Coach Doug Pederson, offensive coordinator Mike Groh, and Wentz have all disputed the notion that Ertz has been neglected. A sample of seven games is still relatively small. And all it may take is one 10-catch, 100-yard game to flip the narrative, which is possible considering he’s done it nine times.
It would be timely for the reeling 3-4 Eagles if Ertz were to break out Sunday at the 5-1 Bills. But two weeks of turmoil, both on and off the field, imply that the team’s problems run deeper than pass distribution. Or is the dynamic between Wentz and his receivers the most prominent manifestations of the Eagles’ seeming dysfunction?
The first public crack in the Super Bowl champions came with the anonymous comments about Ertz. There was a more expansive, anonymous-sourced story on PhillyVoice.com in January that questioned Wentz’s leadership and his alleged favoritism of Ertz.
And just a week ago, the same ESPN reporter had more anonymous quotes about Wentz’s needing to check down more.
According to a WIP-FM report, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery was behind the latest criticism. He denied that he was the source last week and deferred to those comments when asked again Thursday following Monday’s report.
“We’ve all had conversations,” Wentz said Wednesday when asked about Jeffery. “Everyone’s good. Everyone’s going forward and on the same page.”
Orlando Scandrick, who was released by the Eagles on Monday, stoked the flames Friday when he went on FS1 and, aside from blasting general manager Howie Roseman and safety Malcolm Jenkins, reinforced the notion that there was discord in the locker room and that some still favor former Eagles quarterback Nick Foles over Wentz.
“There’s a ton of pressure on him,” Scandrick said of Wentz. “Nick Foles is not walking through that door. Are there some people in that locker room that still would probably want Nick? Yeah. But that’s not a knock against Carson, it’s just everything that Nick has achieved.”
Scandrick, it should be noted, spent only two months on the Eagles and was initially released before the start of the season before being brought back for three games. His other comments about Wentz’s not putting in extra work with receivers until there were problems with drops weren’t consistent with many practices dating back to the spring.
But the Eagles did take additional steps to address the leaks and the performance of the team -- Pederson admitted Friday that the team had become distracted by outside noise. He said he spoke to the team Tuesday, if not the individual, about the anonymous comments. The Eagles’ 12-man leadership council met and also addressed the topic.
And there was a players-only meeting – the team’s first since before 2014, according to Jenkins – that provided a setting for those affected by the reports to hash out any conflict or concern and put it in the past, according to several who were in attendance.
“I think guys are over the drama,” Ertz said. “We’re trying to move on. Obviously, we’ve had a lot of internal discussions, and we’re going to keep them internal. It is annoying, but you understand that when you’re losing in this city it’s tough at times.
“Winning doesn’t fix everything, it just kind of hides things. And so, when you’re losing, stuff comes out.”
Wentz had made a concerted effort this offseason to improve relationships in the locker room, but especially with the receivers. He hosted barbecues at his property in South Jersey, flew the skill position players to his new home in Houston for workouts and recreation, and treated Jeffery, Ertz, and receivers DeSean Jackson and Nelson Agholor to a celebratory dinner after he signed his contract extension in June.
But Wentz said that the anonymous quotes and stories that were critical of his supposed favoritism of Ertz, who is probably also his best friend on the team, didn’t have him subconsciously throwing to the receivers instead of the tight end.
“No, that doesn’t factor into my decision-making,” Wentz said.
Pederson and Groh script the Eagles’ first 15 or so plays. Ertz was targeted eight times in the first quarter of the first four games and caught five, but he hasn’t seen a pass in the first 15 minutes since. In last Sunday’s 37-10 loss to the Cowboys, Wentz didn’t throw to him until the third quarter.
Ertz’s first-quarter average of 1.1 targets isn’t much different from his 1.2 average in his first six seasons. And he’s still the most targeted receiver, one ahead of Agholor. But logic would suggest the Eagles, who have trailed by double digits in the first half of six games this season, should use their top receiver in the early going.
“He was either one or two in the progression on … certainly our first seven passes,” Groh said. “Like we’ve talked about, sometimes the ball goes there and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s for a variety of reasons in each case, but it’s not for lack of trying to get Zach [the ball].”
Last month, the Lions double-teamed Ertz for extended periods of the game, as have other defenses, but he said that the Cowboys weren’t giving him extra attention. The film showed that Ertz was open downfield over the middle on early throws, but Wentz instead threw to Jeffery, who didn’t catch the first pass and drew a personal foul on the other
Ertz, with his precise route running, can find holes in zones as well as any tight end, but he’s been the Eagles’ best man-beating receiver for years. Pederson, though, has had to scheme up mismatches with tight end Dallas Goedert and running back Miles Sanders against linebackers, because of the injury to Jackson and the other receivers’ struggles, to get long ball production.
And that has often meant having Ertz, who will always see a safety or cornerback in man coverage, as a decoy.
“Sometimes there is, sometimes there’s not,” Ertz said. “It just depends on the play. Obviously, I can’t be the primary guy every play.”
Ertz was Wentz’s primary guy in the red zone from 2017 to 2018, though. He caught 27 of 44 targets (61.4%) for 15 touchdowns over that span. No other tight end caught as many touchdowns inside the 20 and only two receivers (Devante Adams with 19 and DeAndre Hopkins with 15) caught as many or more during those two seasons.
Ertz has been targeted nine times inside the red zone this season – just a slight dip percentage-wise compared with 2017-18 (1.3 to 1.5) -- but he has caught only three passes for one touchdown. It’s usually good news for the Eagles when he gets in the end zone, as they’re 13-2 since 2017 when he scores, 12-12 otherwise.
As Groh noted Tuesday, Ertz is still ranked in the top five among tight ends in receptions (35) and receiving yards (404). And he is projected to finish the season with 80 catches for 923 yards. But he’ll likely fall well short of last year’s achievement.
“I knew the 116, because it had never been done before, that the chances of repeating it were probably slim,” Ertz said. “At the same time, I thought coming into this year that I was a better player than I was last year. In 2017, we won a lot of games and I had what, 80 catches, that year? I felt like it would be in between those two years.
“But I understood with DeSean being here, and Dallas’ progression, and some of the running backs, that it was probably going to be more toward that.”
But Jackson hasn’t played since early in Week 2, and Goedert hasn’t made the Year 2 leap many, including himself, had thought he’d make. During training camp, Goedert, when asked to compare himself to other NFL tight ends, placed himself behind only Ertz, Travis Kelce, and George Kittle.
Even though he has only 14 catches for 160 yards and two touchdowns, he said he didn’t regret making that claim.
“I definitely still feel that way,” Goedert said. “Kind of how the season went, obviously, my stats aren’t great. But the things I can do in the run game and the things I can do in the pass game, I feel like I have separation. I knew my targets were going to be limited. I knew I wasn’t going to have a 1,000-yard season.”
There’s only one ball to go around and the Eagles haven’t yet had the problem of having two tight ends with high salary cap numbers to go along with pass distribution expectations. Goedert said that he believes the team can eventually find a way to make each a focal point, like the Patriots did with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in 2011.
But it’s rare in the NFL. And if the Eagles are to make Ertz the NFL’s highest-paid tight end – at least until Kelce gets an extension, as well – there will be little question as to who remains the top dog. Goedert, of course, will be under his rookie contract until 2021.
Ertz, who has two years left on the five-year extension he inked in 2016, said he knows where he wants to sign his next deal.
“Obviously, it’s got to make sense for everybody. They got to want me,” Ertz said. “But I want to play my entire career in Philadelphia. I don’t know when that’s going to be or even if they want me back. But it is something I take a lot of pride in, playing so far in one city."