Despite a scare in 2016, Eagles' Zach Ertz eager for live contact in camp
The Eagles will have live contact in Tuesday's practice
The Eagles finished one of their live-contact practices last season without Zach Ertz and Jordan Matthews, and Ertz seemed ready to unload his hits after the session. Both Ertz and Matthews fell victim to rookies who tackled low. Ertz avoided injury, but Matthews missed a month.
Ertz didn't second-guess the coaching staff, although he did want the eager tackling of the young players to be addressed. The Eagles didn't tackle again during practice for the rest of the summer.
On Tuesday, the Eagles return to practice after a day off. There will be contact. It is the first of the three scheduled days with live contact this summer. The session on Tuesday will focus on goal-line and short-yardage situations. Coach Doug Pederson believes that can only be honed with live contact. During Ertz's first three seasons in the NFL playing under Chip Kelly, the Eagles eschewed live contact in practices.
So will Ertz be careful to avoid hits?
"Not at all," Ertz said. "I'm excited about the live periods. I think last year, I got a little emotionally highjacked after that period I was hit low. But it's part of the game, and it's preparing me for the football games. I probably wasn't used to it at the time. I probably shouldn't have reacted like that. But I'm excited for this year, I'm excited for the live periods. I think it's going to be very beneficial for our football team."
Even if he won't avoid contact on Tuesday, Ertz knows he must stay healthy this summer. Early-season injuries slowed him the past two years. In 2015, he missed the preseason with a core muscle injury. He rushed back to play in the opener, but he wasn't yet himself for a few weeks. In 2016, a scorching start in Week 1 was halted by a rare rib displacement under his left collarbone that sidelined him for nearly a month.
"I've had freak injuries," Ertz said. "I tore a groin completely off the bone. My muscles felt great at the time I tore it. … The collarbone was a freak injury, they'd never seen it before in the NFL. I'm not worried about it. I know when I'm healthy the type of player I can be in this league. I've shown improvement. And I'm just really excited to show it for 16 games – and hopefully longer this year."
The topic of a "breakout" campaign from Ertz has become a tired storyline for those fans who've been waiting to see Ertz emerge as a Pro Bowler since he was the Eagles' second-round pick in 2013. It's annual training camp conjecture that can appear like a fantasy football version of The Boy Who Cried Wolf.
In reality, that breakout campaign might have already happened – Ertz averaged 76.5 catches and 834.5 yards over the past two injury-shortened seasons. The combined totals place him among the top five tight ends in the NFL in both categories. He must improve in the red zone and he must stay on the field, but you don't need to stretch all of your fingers to count the number of tight ends that have been more productive than Ertz.
Another criticism Ertz often hears is that he saves his production for December. On a playoff team, that would be a compliment. The past three years, the Eagles have played meaningless season finales.
In four seasons, Ertz has 116 catches, 1,339 yards, and nine touchdowns in 19 career games in December and January. He has 131 catches, 1,501 yards, and four touchdowns in 42 games in September, October, and November. A part of this is because he's usually been healthier toward the end of the season than the beginning of the season because of the early injuries.
"If I just reversed my seasons, everyone would say I couldn't finish my seasons," Ertz said. "I just have to be consistent. I'm really excited for the year. I'm really excited to have the same coaching staff again, Carson [Wentz] again."
Ertz spent the time between minicamp and training camp working out at Stanford with his college trainer, who Ertz lauded for an emphasis on functional movement. Ertz said he did not have soft-tissue issues while in college, and he's committed to avoiding them this season. He did not go to North Dakota with some of the pass-catchers who worked out with Wentz.
"It was just Carson and I had decided we were going to come back here a week early to throw," Ertz said. "There are about 10 guys already out there and one quarterback, so we thought that it would be better for me and him to come back here a little earlier and just get some work out here."
Entering Ertz's second season, he thought Nick Foles would be his quarterback. Entering his third season, he adjusted to Sam Bradford. Last year brought Wentz at the last minute. He knows he has the same quarterback for back-to-back seasons, and Wentz will be his quarterback for awhile. If they can stay on the field together, Ertz is optimistic about what will result.
"It's kind of been a perfect storm," Ertz said. "When you're hurt like that, the coaches can't really trust you to make plays on third down. They're not going to put their season on the line on a guy who they don't know is 100 percent."