The happiest guy in the Eagles locker room last year when the team brought back DeSean Jackson was Carson Wentz. The second-happiest guy was three-time Pro Bowl tight end Zach Ertz.
Wentz was ecstatic because Jackson was going to provide him with a legitimate deep threat. Ertz was ecstatic because Jackson’s speed on the outside would force safeties to play deeper, which would create more space in the middle of the field for him and the Eagles’ other talented tight end, Dallas Goedert.
Unfortunately, Jackson didn’t stay healthy long enough to do either Wentz or Ertz much good. The 33-year-old wideout suffered an abdominal injury in Week 2 and played just 66 snaps the entire season.
Without Jackson, opposing safeties played up in Wentz’s lap and made the middle of the field more congested than the pre-COVID Schuylkill Expressway at rush hour.
Wentz finished 26th in the league in yards per attempt. His 6.65-yard average was his lowest since his rookie season.
As for Ertz, he managed to catch 88 passes, which were the second-most of his career. But he had to fight tooth and nail for nearly every one of them. His 65.2% catch rate, 6.8 yards per target, and 3.1 yards-after-the-catch average all were his lowest since Doug Pederson became the head coach in 2016.
Without a legitimate big-play receiver on the outside, the Eagles had the fifth-fewest pass plays of 30 or more yards in the league last year (15). Nearly a third of their touchdown drives were 10 plays or more.
“There were times last year when I would joke on the sideline after we’d come off the field after a 20-play drive and we were just grinding salt,” Ertz said. “There just isn’t a lot of margin for error when you have to rely on drives that long to score touchdowns.
“If you have a holding penalty, if you have a false start on third down, it’s really tough to win football games. It keeps our defense fresh, but the goal is to have explosive plays continually, especially on first and second down, so you don’t have as many third-down plays.”
The Eagles finished fourth in third-down conversion rate last season (45.4%). But their 229 total third-down plays were the most in the league.
“Our goal is to not have as many third-down plays this year,” Ertz said. “Our goal is to get first downs on first and second down.”
Jackson is back, but he’s another year older and it’s anybody’s guess whether he can stay healthy.
In the event he can’t, the Eagles went heavy on speed in the draft, adding three wideouts – Jalen Reagor in the first round, John Hightower in the fifth round, and Quez Watkins in the sixth -- who all can fly.
Pederson also added several new coaches to his staff, including Kyle Shanahan disciple Rich Scangarello. One of Scangarello’s jobs will be to improve the Eagles’ play-action game, which also should help open up the middle of the field for Ertz and Goedert, who had 58 catches, five touchdowns and a 66.7%catch rate in his second NFL season.
“Typically, when you have speed on the outside, the safeties play a little deeper,” Ertz said. “They’re more fearful of that big home-run play. And there’s more space in the middle of the field. There are more opportunities for catch-and-run plays and [more] yards after the catch and that sort of thing. So I’m excited about it.”
While the pandemic prevented the Eagles from holding spring OTAs and getting thousands of on-field reps, it did allow players to recuperate and focus on their physical training.
“This is the best I’ve felt going into a season,” said Ertz, 29, who is entering his eighth season. “This time off allowed me to focus on my body and become a better athlete overall instead of just [improving] minute details of running routes like I focus on in OTAs and early in the offseason.”
Ertz has caught 431 passes over the last five years. In 2018, he set the NFL record for receptions by a tight end with 116.
It rankles him that many don’t feel he belongs in the same class as the Kansas City Chiefs’ Travis Kelce and the San Francisco 49ers’ George Kittle.
When the player rankings for Madden NFL 21 came out last month and Ertz was listed well below Kelce and Kittle, he tweeted simply, “LOL.”
“I don’t try to make it about myself,” he said. “But when I see stuff like that, I know the guy who did the rankings. I was honestly laughing out loud. He’s kind of a salty guy, so I understood it.
“But I consider myself in that upper echelon of guys. In that same tier with those guys. I don’t mean any disrespect. But I think the guys in this building feel the same way about me.
“I’m never in the business of comparing people. I feel all three of us [Ertz, Goedert, and the team’s third tight end, Josh Perkins] are at the top of our games and are perfect in the offense we play in. We all have unique skill sets. We’re all different with some similarities.”
Last year, the Eagles used multiple tight-end sets more than 56% of the time. That was the highest percentage since Pederson was hired in 2016. Ertz played 952 snaps. Goedert played 781, which was 256 more than he played as a rookie.
It remains to be seen how that will play out this year if Jackson manages to stay healthy and one or two of the rookie wideouts proves ready to play. Will they play more 11 personnel [three wide receivers]? If they do, will that mean fewer snaps for Ertz?
The contracts for both Ertz and Goedert expire after the 2021 season. Goedert isn’t going anywhere. He has quickly established himself as one of the league’s best young all-around tight ends.
Ertz reiterated Friday that he doesn’t want to play for another team. He wants to finish his career with the Eagles. But it just seems hard to believe that the organization will be willing to invest the amount of money it’s going to take to re-sign both of them considering thatWentz’s cap number jumps to $34 million next year.