When DeSean Jackson was exiled, there were questions about how his absence might impact the Eagles' offense and who would fill the receiving void or at least get increased targets. When Lane Johnson was suspended for the first four games of the season for failing a drug test, there were questions about how the offensive line would be reconfigured. The ripple effects there are interesting. Those two unrelated events might conspire to boost Zach Ertz’s value this season.
From an offensive weapon/pass-catching standpoint, the Eagles still have plenty of options: LeSean McCoy out of the backfield, Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper at wide receiver, and newly-acquired Darren Sproles in various roles that figure to change game-to-game.
As for the offensive line, Allen Barbre is set to man Johnson’s starting tackle job until he returns from his suspension. While the coaching staff – particularly offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur – have praised Barbre so far during training camp, it’s easy enough to imagine scenarios where the Eagles beef up the line by keeping tight end Brent Celek in to block. Celek was pressed into just that kind of duty quite a bit last year, and Chip Kelly frequently lauded him for his blocking ability.
Which brings us to Ertz. At the intersection of pass catching opportunities and Celek serving as a blocker seems to be a chance for Ertz to increase his value and role in the offense. If Celek is asked to do more blocking than route running, Ertz could serve as his complement once again at the position and be more of a receiving tight end.
“Even at the end of the year against the Saints, I feel way more comfortable now – stronger, faster – than I was last year and at the end of the season last year,” Ertz said about his progression from last season.
In the team’s first preseason game at Chicago, Ertz was targeted five times, second-most on the team. He caught four of those passes for 60 yards. That included a 34-yard reception when Mark Sanchez found Ertz streaking down the seam to beat the Bears for a big play.
“I thought Ertz did a good job in the passing game,” Kelly said. “He’s still got a lot of work to do from a blocking perspective, but he was a guy in the passing game who did some good things for us. The biggest thing we’re looking for now is consistency. Guys have done – ‘hey, that’s a good play.’ But then the next one is not so good. Can we continue to make the positive play and stay away from the negative?”
Consistency was an issue for Ertz a year ago. He had games where he was a big contributor, and other outings where – despite being 6-foot-5, 250 pounds – he all but vanished. His best game of the year was against the Arizona Cardinals in early December. He caught five passes on six targets for 68 yards and two touchdowns. The next week, against Detroit, he wasn’t targeted at all. In his defense, that was a strange day because of the freak snowstorm, but Celek caught two passes that afternoon, including one reception that sealed the victory for the Eagles.
Ertz played all 16 games last year and totaled 36 catches for 469 yards and four touchdowns. He averaged 13 yards per catch and recorded 25 first downs. His biggest impact, though, was probably in the red zone where he was targeted six times. He caught four of those passes, three of which were touchdowns.
Ertz is a serious matchup issue for opposing defenses. He’s faster than most linebackers that have to cover him, and he’s bigger and more physical than the generally smaller defensive backs that might find themselves with the unenviable task of stopping him. The key to Ertz seeing increased snaps might be his ability as a blocker. Last year, he and the coaching staff frequently emphasized his need to get better in that area, which prevented him from being used in certain situations.
“I think it’s going well,” Ertz said. “I think I had some very good blocks in the game, some decent ones that I need to improve on footwork wise, but I think it’s moving in the right direction.”