Zach Ertz’s final game with the Eagles could come Sunday night against Washington.
While the same could be said for about 75 percent of the roster, that Ertz is more likely to depart than return next offseason illustrates just how much has changed with the Eagles over the last year.
The franchise isn’t typically in the habit of jettisoning foundational, homegrown players, especially those still seemingly in their prime years. But the downward trajectory of the team, the likely need for a significant overhaul, and salary cap limitations suggest that Ertz could be collateral damage.
The potential end of Ertz’s eight-year run in Philadelphia doesn’t come as a complete surprise. The wheels were set in motion nearly a year ago when the tight end first publicly questioned his future, and further just before this season when he aired his dissatisfaction with his contract and questioned the Eagles’ commitment.
Some could say the motor started on his eventual exit the moment the Eagles selected Dallas Goedert in the second round of the 2018 draft. While the two tight ends were able to coexist for two seasons, with Ertz clearly the No. 1, this season has indicated a changing of the guard.
In 2018, Ertz played 92% of the snaps to Goedert’s 48%. In 2019, when both were healthy in 14 games, it was 86 to 71%. But this season, in the five games in which both started and finished, Goedert has been on the field for 86% of the snaps to Ertz’s 75%.
Ertz played slightly more in Weeks 1-2 – 90 to 84% – but Goedert clearly moved to the top of the depth chart in Weeks 13-15 with an 86-to-65% advantage.
“I don’t think so,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said Friday when asked if the numbers reflected a shift. “I think what you’re seeing, though, is Dallas was playing extremely well when Zach missed due to injury. From an offensive standpoint, [I] just didn’t want to disrupt that. We had to get Zach back acclimated into the offense.
“I don’t think that’s necessarily a shift in anything at that position.”
While Ertz may have been restricted in his first game back after an ankle injury, Pederson said two weeks later that he was up to speed. And yet, Goedert has often been the Eagles’ lone tight end in three-receiver sets.
Goedert left Sunday’s loss to the Cowboys early with a calf injury and was designated out for the season finale Friday. While the Washington game is essentially meaningless – emphasized by the Eagles sitting Goedert and other injured Eagles – it could have additional meaning for Ertz if it is to be his last in Philly.
It would be nice to know what he thinks of his usage or lack thereof. Ertz hasn’t spoken with reporters since Oct. 15, before his injury against the Ravens forced him to miss five games, and hasn’t been made available for Zoom interviews since his return despite repeated requests.
It’s safe to assume he isn’t pleased. Aside from the drop in playing time, when you’re hardly the first or second read on pass plays, and the Eagles are opting for four-receiver sets in obvious passing downs, it says something about how you’re viewed by the organization.
Ertz, like most of the Eagles’ other skill position players, hasn’t had a good season. His statistics, even factoring in missed time, are the worst of his eight-year career.
In 10 games, he’s caught just 33 of 66 targets for 333 yards and one touchdown. His catch rate of 50% is significantly lower than his 69% average in his first seven seasons, and his 9.7 yards per catch is below his 10.9-yard average.
In terms of yards per route run, Ertz’s numbers are shocking. In his first seven seasons, he averaged 1.82 yards per route and never finished lower than 14th among qualifying tight ends. But this season, he’s averaging just .93 yards, which places him 41st out of 46.
No other tight end in the last 13 seasons, if the season were to end today, has had a lower average with as many targets.
Pro Bowl tight ends don’t normally see their production slip dramatically in one year, especially at age 29. (Ertz turned 30 in November.) While Ertz would likely be the first to admit he hasn’t played as well as he would like, there have obviously been extenuating circumstances outside his control.
Carson Wentz’s struggles affected everyone through the Eagles’ first 12 games but maybe nobody more than his once-favorite target. Ertz caught just 24-of-47 targets (51%) for 205 yards (8.5 avg.) in seven games with Wentz, with two drops.
But Pro Football Focus deemed only 26-of-43 targets (60%) – by their definition – as “catchable.” To put that rate into context, 75% of Goedert’s targets were considered catchable, or to compare it to the NFL’s best quarterback-tight end combination, 79% of Travis Kelce’s targets from Patrick Mahomes were catchable.
That only explains part of the regression, however. Wentz also wasn’t throwing to Ertz as much as in years past – 6.7 targets per game this season vs. 8.2 previously – and when he did, he often threw to him within five yards of the line of scrimmage.
For whatever the reason, Wentz hardly ever went to Ertz downfield. Jalen Hurts, since he took over at quarterback, has more attempts over 10 yards, and as a result the tight end has averaged 12.7 yards per catch. But Ertz has caught only 9-of-19 targets from Hurts, just 11 of them deemed catchable.
But what about on the other routes? Is he getting open? Is he still exhibiting the precise route running that made him one of the league’s best tight ends? Is he still drawing extra attention on coverages?
One NFL evaluator, who recently watched film of Ertz as part of his team’s advance preparation, said there isn’t much evidence of a decline.
“Does he move as well as he did five, three, even a year ago? No,” the NFL evaluator said. “But that’s inevitable. I see someone who still understands leverage as well as any tight end, and who consistently gets separation at the top of his routes.
“The quarterback play has just killed him, which was weird because [Wentz and Ertz] had great chemistry.”
Goedert, meanwhile, became more of Wentz’s preferred tight end. In the five games in which the two tight ends played together with the quarterback, Ertz was targeted 28 times and Goedert 38 times.
Overall, Goedert, who turns 26 Sunday, will end his third season by catching 46-of-65 passes (70.8%) for 524 yards (11.4 avg.) and three touchdowns in 11 games. In three of four games Goedert missed, Ertz caught only 9-of-21 passes for 48 yards.
The Eagles could remain committed to having both tight ends return and playing as much two-tight personnel as they have over the last two seasons. It’s not as if they have bona fide returning talent at wide receiver.
They also have Ertz under contract with an $8.25 million base salary for another season and Goedert for the last year of his rookie deal. But would that dynamic make sense if the Eagles were to see a further shift in playing time, or if they were able to get the latter to agree to an extension this offseason?
Eagles general manager Howie Roseman drew a line in the sand with Ertz in August when contract extension negotiations were tabled. In previous years, he may have been more willing to get something done. But borrowing money from the future has caught up to the GM, along with Wentz’s increasing contract, and there will have to be cost-cutting.
Maybe Roseman can extend Ertz to lower his 2021 number and wait to extend Goedert later on. But he is likely to at least gauge the trade market for the three-time Pro Bowler. Ertz would likely prefer a release as to shop his services to a preferred team, but there should be a market.
“After Kelce, [George] Kittle and [Darren] Waller, there aren’t many top-flight tight ends, and there aren’t going to be many in free agency,” the NFL evaluator said. “That Ertz has just one year left [on his contract] should make him even more attractive.
“But he also should have another long-term deal in him. He just turned 30, has avoided major injury, and tight ends don’t normally fall off cliffs like running backs.”
A year ago, it would have been difficult to envision a scenario in which Ertz wasn’t at least with the Eagles through 2021. He was not only one of Roseman’s best draft picks, a player who was pivotal in Super Bowl LII and on pace to set franchise records but also an exemplary figure who played through injuries and seemingly did all the right things off the field.
“I want to be here. I’ve never thought of playing in another city,” Ertz said in September. “My family loves it here. My mom lives here. My brother is going to Temple. His fiancee is going to school out here. So we have roots here now. This is home to me. … I’ll never let the thought of playing in another jersey creep in because I don’t think I can picture that thought in my brain yet.”
Now may be the time.