Heading into 2014, many considered Zach Ertz to be a strong breakout candidate. It's easy to see why: his rookie performance in 2013 was very promising.
There's no question Ertz did show improvement last season. After recording 36 receptions for 469 yards and four touchdowns in 2013, Ertz finished with 58 receptions for 702 yards and three touchdowns in 2014. But while those numbers are good, they don't represent the significant boost some were expecting.
The reason for Ertz's slow progress is no secret. The Stanford alum has been stuck behind veteran tight end Brent Celek during his first two seasons. Chip Kelly really values his blocking ability in Philadelphia's run-heavy system. For what it's worth, Celek ranked as the NFL's second best run blocking tight end the past two seasons. Kelly went all out to praise Celek following the Eagles' Week 6 win over the New York Giants last season:
"I think he's awesome. I love the way he approaches everything. He's got the right demeanor. He's everything you want. He's totally selfless. He's exactly what you want. When you talk about what a Philadelphia Eagle looks like, Brent Celek is what a Philadelphia Eagle looks like."
But while Celek's blocking ability is ideal, his declining production as a pass catcher can limit his value. The Eagles have slowly shifted away from Celek and moved more towards Ertz the past two seasons. In 2013, Celek played 76.5% of the team's offensive snaps while Ertz played 40.8%. In 2014, Celek dropped down to 69.3% and Ertz moved up to 49.9%.
In order to earn more playing time, Ertz needs to improve his blocking. He even said as much last season. The good news for Ertz is that the Eagles have already seen some progress from him.
"Zach’s worked really hard this offseason," said tight end coach Justin Peelle. "He worked really hard at it last year. [Former tight end coach Ted Williams] and I worked with him after practice last year. He’s continued to work in the offseason, and now that we’re here he’s really concentrating on it. It’s to his credit. That’s what Zach does. He works hard. He’s shown improvement."
Peelle offered further assessment:
"It’s an all around thing. Specifically, Zach and I have had those conversations and he knows what he needs to do. He didn’t do a lot of it in college and I think with the transition to the NFL, he’s had to work on his technique."
If Ertz's blocking has truly improved, it comes at a good time. The Eagles got away from the run game a little last year and they're looking to revamp their rushing attack. If Ertz can do a better job of helping out in the run game, he will be able to create more opportunities for himself as a pass catcher.