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Defining Zach Ertz's breakout potential

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We know Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz is poised to step up in his second year. But why?

Al Bello

Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz hears the hype. He sees you on Twitter, buying his jersey and saying nice things. But he's not letting it get to him, because he knows better. After all, this time last year, many fans didn't see him as a breakout candidate, nor did they seem him as the exciting tight end primed to be unleashed on opposing defenses.

All they saw was a rookie they didn't think could catch.

The road to success in the NFL is long, and it's littered with players who found themselves unable to capitalize on the word that makes optimists giddy and pessimists roll their eyes: potential. So now, one season removed from a string of strong late season performances, Ertz is gearing up for the season while much of the football world waits to see how far down that road he can go.

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Last year Ertz became one of only 11 tight ends since 2005 to record 450 yards in his rookie season. But the kind of hype surrounding him doesn't come from his 469 yards receiving, it comes from the playmaking ability he showed in 2013. And with Philadelphia being the football-loving city it is, there was no way Ertz was going to make catches like this and go unnoticed the following season.

The hype around him this summer has been significant, and fans expectations are understandably high. As you may have heard, the Eagles cast aside one DeSean Jackson, and are planning on using the committee approach to replace Jackson's 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns from last season. A major member of that committee will be Ertz.

But ask Ertz about it, and it becomes apparent that the talk happening outside the walls of the NovaCare Complex is staying outside of those walls.

"Not too many [players] focus on the outside world, to be honest," Ertz said. "We're just focused on the Philadelphia Eagles, and if that's me playing on special teams or me playing every down offense, that's what I'm going to do for this team to succeed.

"Last year at this time the hype was that I couldn't catch a ball. I had a few drops in preseason and they said that my hands were bad. So now it's ‘oh I'm going to make a leap.' I have the same confidence in myself that I had last year, but the comfort level's a lot higher."

Such is the life of an NFL player. Start the season slow and you're a villain. Catch a touchdown in the playoffs as a rookie and we want more. And with a fanbase not exactly known for patience - there's an infamous thread on the Eagles' official message board from 2009 calling LeSean McCoy a bust - you can see why Ertz wants to keep the outside chatter at arm's length. By his own admission, the ability to perform at a high level while blocking out the outside noise is an acquired skill.

"If you put too much stock in the media, it's going to crumble your career, or your whole career will be a roller coaster: some good days, some bad days," Ertz explained. "You just have to focus on what you can control, and I can't control what other people are saying or what they're writing, but each and every day I'm getting better."

Spend time talking with people who know Ertz, and you'll learn that this approach isn't anything new. Be it players or coaches, no one seems worried about his ability to improve this season. But being this kind of breakout candidate is tricky. It's easy to throw around hype in the dog days of Training Camp. But harnessing their talent and showing it on the field is another thing entirely.

What does it mean to be a breakout candidate? And how does a player meet those expectations? Before we look at what's ahead for Ertz, let's look at how he got here.

Going Back To College

As the offensive line coach at Harvard, Ron Crook didn't scout or recruit Ertz as a three star recruit out of Monte Vista High School. But once Crook accepted a job as Stanford's offensive tackles and tight ends coach in 2011, it didn't take long for him to see the kind of player he had on his hands.

"We were having one of our first scrimmages after I got there, and I think it was a day he had caught maybe five passes and had a pretty good day," recalled Crook, who is now the offensive line coach at West Virginia. "But immediately after the practice, his first comment was about a blocking technique that corrected.

"It makes you realize that he's not just about doing one thing. He wanted to be a complete tight end. He wanted to be able to play in every situation and took a lot of pride in every aspect of playing football, not just what you see in the headlines."

As his stature at Stanford grew, Ertz expanded his reach. He'd go to the quarterback meetings to see the game through their eyes. Once Andrew Luck left for the NFL, Ertz worked with the incoming quarterbacks. According to Morgan Turner, current Cardinal tight ends coach at who was working his way through the ranks while Ertz was at Stanford, he was perhaps the only player doing this.

Ertz hasn't reached that level in the pros yet - he's still only in his second year, after all - but he does spend time watching film with quarterback Nick Foles during the week.

"It was impressive to see how hard he worked, just to make himself the best player he could possibly be," said Turner. "And then the studying he put in - he doesn't just know his job, he knows what everybody's doing, what the reads are, and where the ball should go every play. That's not common that a player's going to know all that."

What's Next?

The 2013 class of tight ends had some of the most prolific rookie seasons the position has ever seen. Over the last ten years, only seven rookie tight ends had ever gained at least 450 receiving yards. That number now stands at 10, with Ertz among the four new entrants.

Player

Year

Team

Rec

Yds

TD

John Carlson

2008

SEA

55

627

5

Tim Wright

2013

TAM

54

571

5

Tony Moeaki

2010

KAN

47

556

3

Rob Gronkowski

2010

NWE

42

546

10

Dustin Keller

2008

NYJ

48

535

3

Dwayne Allen

2012

IND

45

521

3

Jordan Reed

2013

WAS

45

499

3

Jermaine Gresham

2010

CIN

52

471

4

Zach Ertz

2013

PHI

36

469

4

Heath Miller

2005

PIT

39

459

6

Okay, so the numbers aren't that incredible. But they are yet another example of the NFL game going aerial. And if that kind of productivity continues, it won't be long before fans talk about their favorite tight end with the reverence they are now reserving for stars like Calvin Johnson.

But here's where it gets dicey, both for the glorious future of the dominant tight end and for Ertz: of the seven rookies posting 400 receiving yards from 2005-2012, only two saw noticeable improvement in their sophomore seasons.

Three regressed in some combination of receptions, receiving yards or touchdowns, and two were injured the following season. Only Jermaine Gresham and some guy named Rob Gronkowski saw across-the-board improvement from their rookie seasons. And in Gronk's case, his sophomore year turned out to be the biggest breakout year imaginable.

Player

Year

Team

Rec

Yds

TD

John Carlson

2009

SEA

51

574

7

Tony Moeaki

2011

KAN

Injured

Rob Gronkowski

2011

NWE

90

1327

17

Dustin Keller

2009

NYJ

45

522

2

Dwayne Allen

2013

IND

Injured

Jermaine Gresham

2011

CIN

56

596

6

Heath Miller

2006

PIT

34

393

5

I know what you're saying. Patrick, you're saying, I have eyeballs, and I've watched Ertz play for more than thirty seconds. I know he's going to be better than Dustin Keller.

Fair enough, dear reader.

It's not shocking to think that Ertz could eventually turn into one of the better tight ends in the league. But he still has to do it, and the free agent scrap heap is filled with guys who had potential that, for one reason or another, never materialized (looking at you, Cornelius Ingram).

Eagles starting left guard Evan Mathis has seen plenty of players come and go in his 10 NFL seasons, and has been a part of his own breakout season success story. In his experience, the players who are overwhelmed by the NFL are the ones who find themselves left in the dust.

"I see a lot of people who get overwhelmed with the game, and let the game be bigger than it is," he said.


"They let the game intimidate them, and it goes to their head and it's an automatic block right there. The guys who are able to not give the game too much credit, for lack of a better term, and just focus on seeing everything and learning everything and adapting and being a student of the game are the ones who are able to find their way ... Zach's a smart player. He'll be okay with that part."

For fans, it's easy to see a glimpse of talent and feel confident in that player's ability to improve. For those who have been around Ertz, the answer appears pretty simple: keep on keeping on.

"He probably really just needs to stay the course," Crook said. "I think it's really just to stay the course and keep working and keep handling the mental aspect of things. I think that's usually where guys go wrong. They get caught up in the physical aspect of it and forget about improving in the mental part of it. I don't think that's a mistake he'll make."

Turner agrees. "A lot of it is just trusting in yourself and then growing comfortable in the league," he said. "It's a whole different game. The speed is so much different. Just getting comfortable with that and knowing what you're doing just makes you able to play that much faster ... Once the comfort level is like it was here, I'm sure he will be fine."

Pundits will tell you to draft Ertz a round higher than you would in your fantasy football draft. Hacks like me will spend a days writing about what could be. But while all eyes in Philadelphia might be on Ertz this season, don't expect to hear about it from him.

After all, this time last year he was the kid who couldn't catch.