Zach Ertz asked a reporter whether he thought a certain footballer would be back with his team this coming season.
The tight end wasn’t referring to his own unsettled situation, or even his own sport. But there were parallels that could be made between the soccer-loving Ertz and that of Premier League striker Harry Kane, who is still with Tottenham Hotspur despite rumors of a pending transfer.
Nearly a year after publicly expressing his dissatisfaction with his contract, eight months after a tearful “goodbye” news conference, and report after report about his expected departure, Ertz was still with the Eagles Wednesday, and for the first time since last season ended, in midnight green practicing at the NovaCare Complex.
The 30-year-old looked much like he had during his first eight training camps in Philadelphia: effortlessly cutting in and out of breaks, snaring pass after pass out of thin air, and intermingling with teammates, from rookie to veteran.
But when Ertz took off his helmet, he revealed a bleach blond hairdo — similar to that of his soccer superstar wife, Julie, who is currently in Japan for the Olympics — that stood in contrast to his often conventional demeanor.
Whether it was a statement or not, it would have to suffice. Ertz wasn’t available to interview following practice. Instead, Eagles general manager Howie Roseman was left to answer the still-No. 1 lingering question about the veteran: Will Ertz be on the team when the season opens Sept. 12?
“Yeah, I think when you talk about the guys that are here and the kind of player that he is, and you think about our young skill position group, and having a Pro Bowl player like that on your roster who players can learn from, it’s huge,” Roseman said. “It’s huge for us.”
Considering how unlikely Ertz’s presence in camp once appeared, it would be imprudent to suggest that Roseman was only being diplomatic. If he’s held off this long from trading him, maybe there’s a reason. It’s not as if Ertz can’t help new coach Nick Sirianni and a young, rebuilding squad.
And he must be prepared, in some way, to keep him otherwise he wouldn’t risk a potential injury that would either devalue Ertz or keep him on the roster for the entire season.
But there has just been too much toothpaste squeezed from this dispute to expect Ertz to remain with the Eagles once the real football starts in 5 ½ weeks. He’s not happy. Sirianni has a No. 1-caliber replacement in Dallas Goedert. And does Roseman want an $8.5 million backup playing 40% of the snaps?
Unless … the GM needs Ertz in case Goedert is dealt. If Roseman is to be a suitor for Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson — and the Eagles have interest, sources familiar with their thinking have told The Inquirer — he’s going to want to expend more than just draft picks.
And Goedert is a commodity playing on a rookie contract and would fill a need in Houston.
It’s possible both tight ends stay. Sirianni could employ a healthy dose of “12” personnel, just like his predecessor, Doug Pederson. But did the uptick from 2019-20, in some ways, make the Eagles less explosive? And now that the offense has potential game breakers in wide receivers DeVonta Smith and Jalen Reagor, would it make sense to go heavy at the expense of speed?
“No,” Sirianni said when asked if Ertz would box the Eagles into more “12” personnel. “I think Zach’s presence makes you more multiple of what you can do, right?”
A tight end, one who plays within the numbers, can also be a young quarterback’s best friend. And having two in Goedert and Ertz could benefit Jalen Hurts, should he hold onto the starting spot.
Ertz had a down season in 2020, of course, but he wasn’t the only Eagles offensive player to struggle. Quarterback Carson Wentz’s inconsistencies early on affected him, and later in the season an ankle injury that would require surgery in January limited his effectiveness.
He clearly wasn’t the same player and that lessened his value on the market. There has been interest and offers, per league sources, but Roseman has been unwilling to pull the trigger. He’s made his share of camp deals before, when injuries force teams to make acquisitions. That kind of leverage could give him his asking price.
But Roseman’s handling of Ertz, a franchise cornerstone who caught the game-winning touchdown in the Super Bowl, set the team record for receptions in a season, and has been a model teammate for almost nine years, has been curious.
“I understand there’s a lot going on behind the scenes, or was, but in terms of being a teammate … he’s been pretty much the same old great teammate, great tight end, and a great friend,” Eagles center Jason Kelce said of Ertz. “I’m happy to see him out here. I just want what’s best for him moving forward.”
But what’s best for Ertz may not be what’s best for the Eagles. Roseman set a divorce in motion the moment he selected Goedert in the second round of the 2018 draft. Ertz would only go on to catch 116 passes that season. He caught 88 a season later.
Ertz thought that kind of production warranted a reworked deal last summer, but Roseman’s offer wasn’t to his liking. Perhaps the GM was correct in his assessment based on the tight end’s 36-catch campaign last season. Maybe he is in decline.
But there appeared to be little different about Ertz on the field Wednesday, despite appearances.
“I’m watching Zach out here run routes after practice,” Sirianni said. “That’s the common denominator of great players: They stay after, they work their butts off, they work harder than anybody else. There’s no secret why he’s been good.”
Ertz’s hair is a different shade, his future uncertain, but tigers don’t change their stripes.