During the preseason, Zach Ertz heard often from fantasy football owners who thought he would become one of the NFL's breakout tight ends in 2014. He was a popular pick to accumulate statistics because of a scorching second half of 2013 and the opportunities available in the Eagles offense.
Ertz never let them in on something: He did not think he would match the hype because he would not play enough to do so.
"I knew going in it wasn't going to be as good as everyone projected, because I knew we were going to be a one-tight-end offense," Ertz said. "Even in the preseason, Brent [Celek] was going with the ones. I knew no matter how high everyone projected - whether it was skill-based or whatever the reasons were - it wasn't going to be as high."
Ertz enters the season finale against the New York Giants with 54 catches for 646 yards and three touchdowns. (Last year he finished with 36 catches for 469 yards). Those numbers were bolstered by a standout performance Saturday, when he finished with a franchise-record 15 catches for 115 yards.
That outing came when Ertz played 70 snaps - his highest total of the season. Entering the Redskins game, Ertz had played only 46 percent of the Eagles' snaps. On Saturday, he played 78 percent.
The uptick in playing time came because the Eagles liked the matchup against Washington's defense, which was missing key linebackers. So the Eagles wanted to play a two-tight-end set to keep Washington's base defense on the field and take advantage of the matchup.
But it also revealed what Ertz can do when given the opportunity. The Eagles coaches now must determine whether they properly utilized their second-year tight end this season.
"We think so," offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said. "He certainly had a marquee game the other night. . . . We feel good about the way we've used him this year."
The way they used him meant that Ertz was on the sideline more than the field. The Eagles relied more on their three-receiver sets this year, trying to get defenses into nickel formations. When they played one tight end, it was mostly Celek because of his run-blocking ability.
The Eagles have wrestled this season with how to play offensive weapons such as Ertz and Darren Sproles, and determining which starters would come off the field when they did. Ertz conceded that the coaches needed to think about all 11 players - not just how to get him onto the field.
"As far as [being] maximized, the coaches feel like they do what is best for the team," Ertz said. "They get paid a lot of money to make these decisions, and whether they feel like one tight end is best on the field and that's Brent, whether one tight end is myself, or two tight ends or no tight ends, that's something I can't control. . . . I'm trying to prove I'm the best option. Whether they do or not is up to them."
Ertz caught the ball on 14 percent of his passing plays. Jeremy Maclin caught passes on 13.3 percent of his passing plays, Jordan Matthews on 12 percent, Celek on 10.2 percent, and Riley Cooper on 9.5 percent.
Ertz also had the best catch percentage of those players, making receptions on 67.5 percent of his targeted passes. Maclin came in at 60 percent, Matthews at 62.1, Celek at 59.6, and Cooper at 57.6.
Those numbers reveal both Ertz's ability to get open and to catch balls thrown in his direction.
"As far as production, I feel like whenever I'm on the field I can get open all the time," Ertz said. ". . . That's something I take a lot of pride in, being able to create a mismatch regardless of who they put on me. If they're in base, we have an advantage there - me against the safety - and if they're in nickel, I feel like I'm bigger than most of the nickels, so that could be an advantage as well."
When coach Chip Kelly was asked why Ertz could not have had this production earlier this season, he said it depended on whom the Eagles were playing. For example, he said, Washington's linebackers were a better matchup than Seattle's. But even in that example, Ertz had the team's most receiving yards against the Seahawks while playing only 54 percent of the snaps.
Despite how his fantasy football owners feel, Ertz has had a strong second season. He ranks 13th among NFL tight ends in catches even though 30 tight ends have played more downs than him.
If Celek returns, Ertz could be in the same situation next season. It will be up to the coaching staff to play him more or risk underutilizing him.
"I'm going to try to be so good," Ertz said, "that they can't take me off the field."