Philadelphia Eagles positional reviews: What would a breakout season be for tight end Zach Ertz?
Our 10-part series continues with a look at Ertz and the other TEs.
Philly.com is looking at the Eagles' 90-man roster this week and next before they begin organized team activities on May 23. Here's the schedule:
May 8: Wide receivers
May 9: Running backs
May 10: Offensive linemen
May 11: Tight ends
May 12: Defensive ends
May 15: Defensive tackles
May 16: Linebackers
May 17: Cornerbacks
May 18: Safeties
May 19: Quarterbacks
Spotlight on: Zach Ertz
For the past three years, there have been stories around this time in the offseason about Ertz's "breakout" season coming. There is a fatigue about the storyline, although when parsing the numbers, Ertz ranks among the top 10 tight ends in the NFL in production. He has the eighth-most receptions (247) and eighth-most receiving yards (2,840) since entering the NFL in 2013. He has averaged 76.5 catches and 834.5 yards during the past two years, and both seasons were shortened by injury. Ertz established himself as one of the better tight ends in the NFL, but he still needs to improve if he's going to be considered among the best tight ends. The top 10 and top 5 are different classes.
There is well-founded criticism about his lack of touchdowns –he'd tell you he needs to score more – and part of that can be attributed to a lack of red-zone opportunities. He was targeted only 14 times in the red zone last season, with six catches and three touchdowns. There were also touchdowns nullified by penalties during the past two years. But clearly, as a 6-foot-5 and 250-pound tight end, Ertz can be more of a factor.
The criticism about a perceived lack of toughness has less merit. Much was made about the poor block attempt against Cincinnati last season, and it's fair to question that play. But he took 850 other snaps last season, and he is an improved blocker and dangerous pass-catcher. He drops few passes, produces first downs (54 percent of his catches moved the chains, including 70 percent of his third- and fourth-down receptions), and is a key offensive weapon. Ertz has played through injury, including almost the full opener with a dangerous rib injury.
So what needs to be better in 2017 for him to move up a tier among tight ends? He needs to stay healthy (a full 16-game slate is important), score more touchdowns, and remain consistent. Another year with Carson Wentz will help – their connection improved as last season progressed – and he acknowledged that having an outside receiver who requires attention will open space in the middle of the field. During the past two years, the Eagles' top receiver played in the slot, which meant safeties could focus on Ertz and Jordan Matthews without needing to worry as much about helping on the outside.
But the notion that Ertz is still waiting for a "breakout" season must be qualified by what's considered a breakout campaign. Would it require 80 catches and 1,000 yards? Since Ertz entered the league, only five tight ends have reached that plateau: Jimmy Graham in 2013, Rob Gronkowski in 2014, Travis Kelce in 2016, Greg Olsen in 2014 and 2016, and Delanie Walker in 2015. To get into the top five, Ertz would need that type of campaign. But if he has another year of 70+ catches and 800+ yards, he'll still be among the best receiving tight ends in the NFL. And if that's the criteria, Ertz has already had a "breakout" season.
Entering his fifth season and at 26, Ertz is no longer a young, up-and-coming player. He's in his prime, and if he's going to take that next step, this would be a good season to do it.
On the 53-man roster: Trey Burton, Brent Celek
The Eagles brought back Burton on a one-year, restricted free-agent tender. The former undrafted rookie now makes $2.746 million, and with the increased salary will come expectations of more work in the offense. He has progressed from a special-teams standout to a bit offensive player to a key role player in three years, all while maintaining his special-teams responsibilities. After playing 29 percent of the offensive snaps last season and catching 37 passes for 327 yards and one touchdown, Burton will continue to be the Eagles' No. 2 tight end in passing situations. His versatility allows him to move throughout the formation, from the backfield to the slot. Wentz trusts him – the two are close off the field – and Burton had four games with at least five catches last season. There will be more offensive weapons this season, but as a fourth-year player, Burton will continue to be a part of the passing game. He's an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, too, so a good year will boost his stock – especially because "move tight ends" (tight ends who do not just play in-line) are becoming more popular in the NFL.
Celek is on the other end of the spectrum. A respected veteran who is entering his 11th NFL season, Celek played only 439 offensive snaps last season and had a career-low 14 catches. His playing time continues to decrease, and with Burton's rise in the offense, it's unlikely Celek will take on a much bigger role. He's a key blocking tight end at this stage of his career, but his days of being a 50-catch tight end are past him. Look for his role in 2017 to be as a situational tight end, and it could be his final year in an Eagles uniform.
On the 53-man bubble: Anthony Denham
Denham spent last season on the practice squad and signed a reserve/futures contact at the end of the year. He is 6-4 and 235 pounds and played four games for the Houston Texans in 2014. Unless there's an injury or the Eagles go heavy at the position, it's unlikely Denham would factor into the 53-man roster.
Draft picks: None
The Eagles did not a select a tight end in a deep draft class. They liked the class, but so did the rest of the league – 12 tight ends were taken in the first five rounds, compared to only four last year.
The Eagles will likely announce their undrafted free-agent class on Thursday, and it will reportedly include Shepard tight end Billy Brown. A small-school prospect who was a standout at the Division II level, Brown is 6-4 and 255 pounds and ran a 4.70-second 40-yard dash at the combine.