Heading into the 2014 NFL season, the outlook for second-year tight end Zach Ertz was bright. Many were pegging the Stanford product to have a breakout year. The hype wasn't unsubstantiated. Ertz had a very good rookie season as far as first-year tight ends are concerned. His mark of 13 yards-per-reception mark tied for the best by a rookie tight end in a long time. He seemed primed for a big leap in his sophomore campaign.
Through 11 games, however, Ertz hasn't had the kind of breakout that some expected and/or hoped he would have. By no means has Ertz had a bad season: he's caught 30 passes for 430 yards and two touchdowns. His yards-per-reception rate of 14.3 ranks fifth best in the NFL among tight ends with at least 12 catches. When Ertz's number has been called, he has produced. The issue is that his number is only being called in a limited role. Ertz has only played 51.6% of the team's snaps this season.
The reason why Ertz isn't getting on the field more isn't a surprise by now. The team clearly values Brent Celek's blocking ability, and for good reason. Look no further than Celek's performance in Week 5 against the New York Giants to see how he can make a difference as both a run blocker and a pass protector.
Eagles head coach Chip Kelly thinks seems to think the questions about Ertz's lack of playing time is a little overblown. "I think Zach Ertz is on the field for us," Kelly said during his Wednesday press conference. "We have two very, very good tight ends. I think the one thing that -- I love the questions. We have 46 guys on our team, but only a certain amount of guys can play. [TE] Brent Celek is doing a hell of a job, so it would be very injustice if I told Brent he has to sit because we want to put someone else on the field.
Kelly would go on to further laud Celek's blocking ability. "He's an outstanding blocker," said Kelly. "I think he may be the best blocking tight end in the league. I think with what we do, I think he's a sure‑handed receiver, he had a huge game against Carolina a week ago and had over 100 yards receiving. So, I don't think it has anything to do with Zach. It has really to do with how well Brent Celek is playing."
It's no surprise to see Kelly value blocking from his skill players. Players have admitted that Kelly's mantra is "'If you don't block, you don't get the rock." Factoring in the multitude of injuries to Philadelphia's offensive line this season, it's been easy to see why Celek's value as a blocker has been especially critical.
In a true statement to the importance of blocking in Kelly's offense, however, Ertz went as far to say that even highly-talented New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham would struggle to get playing time in Philadelphia. "Probably not, to be honest," Ertz said, when asked about the hypothetical of Graham in Kelly's offense. "I don't want to take anything away from Jimmy, but the things I've seen, he is more of a pass-catching tight end. In this offense we are a run-first team and we don't sub because we go at (a fast pace)."
While I HIGHLY doubt that Kelly wouldn't put a player of Graham's talent to good use, there is something to be said about how teams value various schemes and traits differently. In Kelly's scheme, Ertz will continue to earn more playing time until if/when he proves himself to be a more reliable blocker. Celek will continue to play a majority of the snaps despite not producing much as a receiver.
Perhaps the hype for Ertz heading into this season was too unrealistic. It wasn't as if the Eagles were just totally going to cast aside Celek aside. On a personal level, I can't say I'm totally shocked how Ertz's role in this offense has played out. From what I wrote back in mid-July:
Celek and Ertz will take the bulk of the snaps on offense. Celek will still take more than Ertz due to his superior blocking ability. Let's not forget that the Eagles are a run-heavy team. The Eagles also could opt to keep Celek in to block in order to help out Allen Barbre while filling in for the reportedly suspended Lane Johnson.
Not too far off-base, right? Disappointment is always relative to expectations. Perhaps the optimism was too high in this case.