It’s been hard not to notice him. He’s big and strong and fast — the kind of player who stands out.
All of that is said with the obvious caveats. It’s not even August. It’s early. The Eagles have only had two full-squad training camp workouts so far. But ... Zach Ertz has gotten some attention for the way he’s played.
On the first day of camp, during 11-on-11 drills, Ertz ran left-to-right across the field. He was about seven or 10 yards deep with two linebackers trailing behind in coverage. As he neared the right sideline, Ertz dove to scoop up a fast and low pass from Michael Vick just before it hit the grass.
Later the same day, Ertz made one of the best plays of the afternoon when he sprinted down the right sideline, stopped, and out-jumped nickel cornerback Brandon Boykin to grab a long completion. The tight end is 6-foot-5, 250 pounds. Boykin is 5-10, 185. Ertz looked like a power forward posting up in the paint to take an easy entry pass away from a smaller guard.
He did more of the same on Saturday, using his quickness against slower linebackers and his size advantage against smaller defensive backs. In the first two days — and, again, it’s early — you’ve started to see why the Eagles drafted Ertz in the second round. The tight end can create matchup problems.
“I think that’s why they drafted me, to be honest,” Ertz said. “In college I was used all over the field. And here I expect kind of the same thing. Obviously I have to earn my reps. I know it’s not going to be handed to me in any sense.”
Chip Kelly said the same thing on Friday — that Ertz would have to earn his reps — but that didn’t prevent the Eagles from giving their new tight end some snaps with the first-team offense. Along with Brent Celek and James Casey, Ertz has split time with the first and second teams despite the fact that he missed most of OTAs and mini-camp because of the NFL’s rookie graduation rule.
“We're not picking and choosing and saying it's the ones in, we can't put Zach in there,” Kelly said on Friday. “If he's going to play for us, he's going to have to play with the ones. He’s a smart kid. He did a real good job.
“We'll see when we look at tape, did he make any mistakes? He's been good in meetings. He's been good in the two days we had rookies. He obviously was really behind just because of the rule.
“The one thing you knew with him and Jordan [Poyer], both really, really sharp guys, and they worked at it so you could tell they had their head in the playbooks when they were away, and now it's good that we get a chance to actually work with them.”
When camp opened earlier this week, tight ends coach Ted Williams echoed that sentiment. Williams complimented Ertz’s ability to “make himself big” or “outrun defenders” depending on the coverage. The idea, Williams said, is to use Ertz, Celek, Casey and others in multi-tight end sets. Williams called those formations “innovative” and said using more tight ends has become “fashionable” in the NFL over the last few years.
While that might be true, the gap between top-quality tight ends and everyone else is still significant. Last season, Jason Witten was the only tight end to total 1,000 or more yards. Only three tight ends (Witten, Tony Gonzalez and Jimmy Graham) had 80 or more catches. Only three (Witten, Graham and Rob Gronkowski), averaged 60 or more yards per game. And only five (Graham, Gronkowski, Gonzalez, Kyle Rudolph and Heath Miller) finished with eight or more touchdowns.
The point is that teams might want to feature tight ends as major parts of their offenses, but finding the personnel who can actually contribute and put up numbers is a much more difficult task. The Eagles are still a long way from knowing what Ertz can truly do — or even how he’ll fit into the mix.
“Obviously there’s a lot of great tight ends here,” Ertz said. “I’m really looking forward to the competition with Brent and James and some of the other guys.”