When the Eagles opened their locker room the day after the season ended last month, reporters flocked to the stalls of players who might not return next season. Nelson Agholor, Malcolm Jenkins, and Nigel Bradham, among others, were peppered with questions about their uncertain futures.
Veteran leaders who were expected back, meanwhile, were asked to comment on an offseason that could include significant roster turnover. Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, and Brandon Brooks were among those who pondered the potential for change.
Zach Ertz weighed in, as well, but he was the only player from the latter group to include himself in the former one -- surprisingly.
“The fact of the matter is that no one knows what’s going to happen, with me or with anyone,” Ertz said. “Probably the only one who knows for sure is [quarterback] Carson [Wentz]. So it’s been an incredible seven years for me here. I want to be here forever.
“I hope I’m able to be here forever. And whatever they decide, they’re going to decide, but it’s been a heck of a run.”
Ertz’s response had reporters literally inching closer with their microphones as he spoke. How could the tight end, of all Eagles, with two years left on his contract, and three straight Pro Bowl nods under his belt, include himself on a list of possible departures?
Ertz would later clarify that he expected to return in 2020, but he also said, “Crazier things have happened.” While trading or releasing a homegrown, elite player in the prime of his career would qualify as crazy, Eagles general manager Howie Roseman has yet to make a move as controversial.
“Zach’s got two years left on his contract,” Roseman said a few days later. “He’s a guy that’s had a tremendous career. He’s got a chance to not only go in the Eagles Hall of Fame, but really, the NFL Hall of Fame.
“I think our goal is to keep our homegrown players here. I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but just having conversations, I don’t think it was meant to be reflected about concern about his immediate future.”
But Ertz’s long-term concerns – justifiable considering the second-round investment the Eagles made in tight end Dallas Goedert two years ago – have as much to do with the here and now as they do one or two years down the road.
And that is likely why he expressed apprehension about his future in Philadelphia. An extension this offseason would likely guarantee Ertz’s contract through 2022, which would be one year beyond the expiration of Goedert’s four-year rookie deal.
An extension wouldn’t preclude the Eagles from keeping Goedert, obviously. Roseman wants to retain his high draft picks, especially ascending talents like the former South Dakota State product. But the Eagles would be one of the few NFL teams in the salary cap era to devote significant space to two tight ends.
Roseman has more pressing issues. He needs wide receivers with outside speed more than perhaps anything. But he wouldn’t have engaged in negotiations with Ertz last season if he didn’t understand the value of an extension before the market for tight ends exponentially increases.
The same could be said for most positions with the cap expected to grow dramatically this offseason. But Ertz -- unlike Brooks and tackle Lane Johnson -- didn’t sign on the dotted line when an offer was made in November. And for good reason.
The NFL’s top tight ends are never going to get top receiver money, but an argument could be made for three – the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce, the 49ers’ George Kittle, and Ertz -- to at least be the highest paid offensive skill position players on their respective teams.
Ertz and Kelce have been their teams’ leading receivers for four years running, Kittle for two years. While Kelce finished behind Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill in receiving yards in two seasons, Ertz and Kittle have led in both catches and yards.
It should also be noted that all three have played in recent Super Bowls, and if you include the recently retired Rob Gronkowski, the hit rate for top tight ends in championship games is far greater than elite players at other offensive skill positions outside of quarterback.
Kittle, who has one year left on his four-year rookie contract, is the most likely to be extended this offseason. And the per-year worth of his deal could set the tight end bar at close to $15 million. The Packers’ Jimmy Graham is currently the highest paid, at $10 million.
Kelce ($9,368,400) and Ertz ($8.5 million), who signed five-year extensions four years ago, are second and fifth, respectively, among tight ends. They each have two years left, but with neither showing signs of slowing down, the Chiefs and Eagles may want to be preemptive.
Kelce has been slightly more productive over his career. But he’s 13 months older than Ertz, who turns 30 in November, and the Chiefs might not be ready to rework his deal with quarterback Patrick Mahomes likely to receive the largest contract in NFL history this offseason.
But extending Ertz could make fiscal sense for the Eagles.
“Obviously, it’s a business. I understand that,” Ertz said last month when asked about a possible extension. “But Philly is where my heart is. They know that. We’re going to do everything we can to get it done and I’m excited for that opportunity.”
Ertz may be in no hurry. But considering his value to the Eagles, now may be the time to strike. Over the last three seasons, only four NFL players – receivers Michael Thomas of the Saints and DeAndre Hopkins of the Texans, and Kelce and Ertz – had more than 270 catches, 2,900 yards, and 20 touchdowns.
The Eagles’ injuries and lack of talent at receiver could be used to downplay his statistics, but a counterargument would point out the advantages Ertz would have gained with complementary pieces on the outside.
Ertz’s numbers were down in the first half of last season, in part because some defenses had either bracketed coverage in his direction or had their top man defender cover him.
It’s unclear how Roseman will address the Eagles’ deficiencies at receiver. Nelson Agholor is expected to leave via free agency, but parting with Alshon Jeffery and/or DeSean Jackson would cost the Eagles approximately $26.1 million and $12.5 million in dead money against the cap.
The Eagles were forced to use 12-personnel more than any other team last season. They had two tight ends on the field 54% of the time, way ahead of the Titans’ 40%. While they ranked only 23d in the league in terms of yards per pass attempt in 12-personnel (7.2), it was still higher than their 6.5 average in 11-personnel (one tight end, three receivers).
“Obviously, 12 has been a productive personnel group for us,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said last month. “There are times on third down where you probably want to be in a little more 11, put a little more speed out on the field and things of that nature.
“But again, as we go through the season and dealt with the amount of injuries that we had, we felt as a staff, offensively, that our best was 12, and having both Zach and Dallas on the field at the same time.”
Ertz (88 catches for 916 yards) and Goedert (58 catches for 607 yards) became the first tight-end duo to lead their team in receiving since the 1970 merger. Just because it never happened before doesn’t mean it can’t be a recipe for success.
The Patriots reached the 2011 Super Bowl with Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez featured heavily in their offense. But teams typically keep only one predominantly receiving tight end, with the second more inclined to block on run downs.
“Dallas is a great player. I think I’m a good player,” Ertz said. “I feel like it’s a personnel group that we can hang our hats on. Teams got to make a decision when they defend us because we have tight ends who can do both. We can run-block, we can pass-catch, we can run routes.”
Blocking has never been Ertz’s forte. He has improved, but Goedert allowed for him to line up more as a receiver. Goedert has shown a proficiency in blocking, but as the Eagles utilized him more in the passing game last season, his blocking regressed.
He had some costly mistakes as a receiver through the first three months of the season – a dropped touchdown pass against the Lions, fumbles against the Cowboys and Seahawks – but Goedert was instrumental in the Eagles’ late-season run. He caught 34 passes for 391 yards and a touchdown in the last six games, including the playoffs.
But Goedert’s increase in production was partly attributed to the rib and kidney injuries that Ertz suffered in the penultimate game of the season.
They’re stylistically different receivers. Ertz runs precise routes and has soft hands. Goedert is physical and effective after the catch. They complement each other, but the Eagles may ultimately decide that they can keep only one beyond 2021.
Ertz is a proven commodity. He has more catches than any tight end in NFL history through the first seven seasons. He hasn’t shown any signs of regression. Some may criticize his occasional avoidance of contact, but it has also likely prolonged his career. It’s hard to question his toughness, however, based upon his willingness to play after he lacerated his kidney.
Goedert, though, is more than four years younger. He has yet to be given the opportunity to tap into his full potential. His prospects and the short history of teams that have thrived with two top-end tight ends has had some wondering if Ertz could be trade bait this offseason.
The Eagles would have to eat about $13.5 million if they were to move him, however, because Ertz has already agreed to two restructurings. In other words, a deal is unlikely to be struck, no matter the speculative connecting of dots that typically takes place between the combine and the start of free agency.
But the more substantive reason for Ertz to stay – and for the foreseeable future – is that both parties want it.
“Obviously, I want to be here for a long time,” said Ertz, who is already second in franchise history in receptions. “There’s no doubt about it. I’ve set goals from the moment I got here that I want to be the best tight end in Eagles history, the best receiver in Eagles history.”