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In defense of Zach Ertz

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Few things bother me more than Twitter dummies.

Some people just don't care or don't understand how much a single comment can impact even a thick-skinned person if it hits at the wrong moment. As someone who plays in a band for a living, I long ago stopped reading album reviews, or social media comments that were in any way related to my craft. And yet, after years of avoiding this situation for myself, I am now writing an article prompted by a negative Twitter comment about someone else. The comment itself is dumb in so many ways that I feel like I have to break it down.

Recently, Zach Ertz tweeted "let's go then" to Alshon Jeffery. Random Twitter Guy responded; "Show up in real games this year." First of all, do millennials not have parents? If you're an Eagles fan who is frustrated with Ertz's game, maybe find a constructive way to say it or just go to bed. This isn’t Scott Norwood. He didn’t single-handedly lose a Super Bowl for your favorite team. If you’re going to criticize the dude do it at an appropriate time. Secondly, "real games"? Literally every game is meaningful before a team is eliminated from playoff contention. With that being said, what possible motive would a contracted player have to perform poorly while a team has a chance and then play better once their team is eliminated? But most importantly, Ertz just had his best year as an Eagle. It came with an unfamiliar QB, a new coach and a new scheme, AND he finally flashed as a physically aggressive player. Is now really the time to criticize?

I've read and heard the "show up in real games", or "play that way all year" comments about Ertz more times than I can count and frankly I think they are lazy and unfair criticisms of his game. My personal frustration with Ertz as a player has little to do with his numbers. I'm here to posit that this frustration, which I believe is shared by many Eagles fans, has grown to overshadow how good he has been as a player. It is simply that he doesn't play tough enough.

The Brian Dawkins Effect

In my opinion the Zach Ertz magnifying glass started being built back in 2007 when the Eagles used their fifth round pick to draft Brent Celek. In the years before that, the Eagles had average to above average TE starters in Chad Lewis, and LJ Smith respectively. Lewis was athletic for his time and made three pro-bowls. Smith for his part led the team in targets, catches and TD's between 2005-2006. Even during that time, however, Smith's numbers weren't particularly special.

Celek was simply a different type of player. After acclimating to the league for two years along side LJ Smith, Celek had a breakout season in '09 with 76 REC, 971 YDS and 8 TD's. Any team would love that production from a TE. But again, the numbers are only part of why we fell in love with Celek. Simply put, he was the toughest offensive player we'd seen in years. He often seemed to crave contact, running through arm tackles and using his core strength to carry defenders for two or three yards before finally going down. He was a punishing player in his prime and it was rare to see him tackled by one player. At the very least, I never expected him to be brought down by one player and that matters. Fans loved that grit but more importantly the team fed off of his energy. They loved that he would fight for a first down and jump up with wild eyes to give the signal himself. They loved watching him smash through two players to get into the end zoner carry 3 defenders for two extra yards. We all knew that he was willing to sacrifice his body for the team, the fans and the city. That energy is palpable and contagious.

Therein lies the fundamental problem for Ertz. He is essentially suffering from a lesser form of the Dawkins Syndrome. We, as Eagles fans are spoiled by the physical and fiery play of Brent Celek. This must be the case, because oh by the way, statistically speaking, Zach Ertz has had the best first four years of any Eagles tight end ever (rivaled only by, should-be hall of famer, Keith Jackson -- who had more TD's but less catches and less yardage).

Zach Ertz vs. Brent Celek

Before we get into numbers, I want to make my position clear. Not being as tough as Brent Celek is OK. The bar has been set pretty high. But for most of his career Ertz has been playing below the acceptable line as a 6'5", 250 pound TE. Last year was the first time we caught a glimpse of him as a physical player and let's hope it continues. Regardless of his physicality Ertz is absolutely a top tier tight end in the league right now. He isn't the dominant player Rob Gronkowski is nor is he as explosive as Jordan Reed but he does a lot of things very well. He's a great route runner. He knows how to find the openings in zone defenses and has a great catch radius.  He routinely makes athletic adjustments to the ball, often making circus type highlights. And, all things considered he has very consistent hands. I think his best comparison is Jason Witten and that's a good thing, mostly because it means he should be a steady player in this league for a long time.

In terms of production, Ertz's first few years as an Eagle had a similar trajectory to Celek's. Their first two years looked like this.

Brent Celek: 60 TGTS, 43 REC, 496 YDS, 2 TDS
Zach Ertz: 146 TGTS, 94 REC, 1171 YDS, 7 TDS

As you can see Ertz already had a significant statistical lead at this point. (Note that the gap between receptions and targets do not mean the player had that many drops. For instance, in 2013 Ertz was targeted 57 but only 38 of those were "catchable" according to PFF. He caught 36 of the 38.)

In their first two years both players were still sharing a large majority of snaps with their veteran counterparts. The largest statistical leap came for each of them in year three.

Celek: 76 REC., 971 YDS. 8 TDS
Ertz: 75 REC, 853 YDS, 2 TDS

That 2009 year was an absolutely monster year for Celek before he came back down to earth in 2010.  There are various reasons for the '09 breakout. For one thing, L.J. Smith was traded and Celek was free to take the lions share of snaps at TE. Secondly, it was his third year playing with Donovan McNabb and they were clearly on the same page by then. Thirdly, he was surrounded by arguably the best collection of skill players the Eagles have ever seen. Take a moment to soak in this depression with me. LeSean McCoy, Brian Westbrook, Leonard Weaver, Desean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant and Kevin Curtis. The Eagles were able to attack every area of the field that year. Jackson, Maclin and even Curtis, for the brief time he was here that year, all had to be respected as deep threats.  Those RB's were a nightmare for defenses. Celek was the least of a teams' worry going into a game that year.  Think about that compared to Ertz's third year as an Eagle in which he had just met his starting QB a few weeks before the season, the running back literally hated being on the team and didn't want to play, and aside from Jordan Mathews the WR's could have easily been replaced with say, myself and one of those inflatable air dancers that you see outside of a gas station.

In Zach Ertz's fourth year, with yet a new QB, (his 5th since arriving in the league), and this time with a new coaching staff, the WR's had somehow gotten even worse, the O-line and RB situations were often piecemeal and yet his statistics remained very similar. 78 REC, 816 YDS, 4 TDS in 14 games. This is in a year when outside of Darren Sproles, Ertz was often keyed as the main offensive threat.

Now there's plenty to be said about all of this. For one thing, I'm comparing a fifth round pick to a second round pick. It just so happens That Celek turned out to be one of the best TE's the Eagles have ever had so it's not a bad place to start.  Still, it's fair to say that as a 2nd rounder, expectations are different for Ertz. He should have better production than Celek and he does. So let's quickly compare him to a few other players (via fantasyfootballers.org).

Zach Ertz vs. NFL Tight Ends

In 2016, Ertz was fourth in yards per game. Travis Kelce, Rob Gronkowski and Greg Olsen were in a league of their own while Jimmy Graham and Jordan Reed were close behind Ertz.  Ertz was tied for thirteenth with only 4 TD's. Kelce, who is widely regarded as a top 3 TE in the game also had 4. No tight end had more than 8 TD's last year. Ertz was fifth in total yards and first in total receptions. The people at sportingcharts.com have Ertz marked down for one dropped ball in 2016. People define "catchable" differently but that's a pretty good area to be in. 

In short, Zach Ertz had a damn good year. But there's one number that I left out because it needs to be expanded on. Among TE's that had 300 or more YDS last year, Ertz was 19th in YDS/REC. Jordan Reed was right behind him. This isn't necessarily a horrible statistic. Again, Reed was right behind him and players like Kyle Rudolph and Dennis Pita were much lower while still being valuable assets to their team. This is a statistic that speaks to our expectations of Ertz and of TE's as a whole. We all want the next Gronk but again, Zach not Gronk.

The fact that Zach Ertz hasn't been a huge player as a deep threat might be something that bothers people but to be fair most of that is scheme related. Literally all of Ertz's production came on short and intermediate routes this year. His average target came at 8.1 yards. That was 26th among active TE's. Carson Wentz either wasn't asked to or simply did not throw a lot of deep balls tin 2016. Well why didn't Ertz do it on his own after the catch?

Let's compare his career YAC percentage to other top TE's:

Travis Kelce 59%
Shannon Sharpe 42%
Greg Olsen 40%
Antonio Gates 36%
Jason Witten 36%
Zach Ertz, 35%
Rob Gronkowski 34%
Tony Gonzalez 33%
Jimmy Graham 29%

There is a perception that Ertz has underperformed after the catch. Realistically, he is above average in this aspect. Keep in mind that Those players I'm comparing him to are all time greats. However, there is certainly room for improvement here.

Room For Improvement

There are two statistics I would like to see Ertz improve this year. One is YAC and the other is TD's.  I think these go hand in hand for the way he plays and if in the end he can carry last years determination and physicality into this year I think both of these numbers will go up.

If that number goes up from four to seven or eight this year he'll be trending in the right direction. As stated earlier for the first few years of his Eagles career we simply did not see the expected level of toughness from him. It wasn’t until last year when fans and media publicly questioned his toughness that we actually saw him play to his size and strength. Yes I know I started this article by telling people not to criticize each other on Twitter but there is such a thing as constructive criticism and there is a time and a place for everything. Ironically, I think this may have been the push he needed to get himself fully locked and loaded as an Eagle. After that press conference last year he came out fighting and after the first two games of being a more physical presence on the field it seems to me that he embraced the role.  The question is will he regress and go back to square one when the season starts again. I can’t say that he won’t but for some reason this is the first year that I’ve felt he will keep this momentum going.

Speaking of TD's, if the Eagles want to improve red zone efficiency in 2017, they could start by ratcheting up targets for Ertz. He was BY FAR the Eagles' best RZ target last year; he was thrown 9 "catchable" balls in the red zone and caught 8 of them, 4 of which went for TD’s.

Mr. December

So where does the idea come from that Ertz is playing harder late in the season. For one thing, recency bias. He played a visibly physical style of football late last year that he has never played consistently as an Eagle. Fans were frustrated with the Eagles and looking for something to bitch about. But here's the real reason. Ertz has zero games in the first half of any season with double digit targets.  He has 8 such games later in seasons.

2013: 24-30
2014: 41-48
2015: 48-64
2016: 28-78 (he missed 3 games early)

Notable games were 18, 16, 17,  and 15 catches. If we want to discuss Ertz having big games his targets are the paramount variable. As stated before He isn't the Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham type of player who you can just throw the ball up to a couple times a game and hope he breaks it.  At least, he isn’t when he’s being targeted as the main offensive weapon. He has potential to make big plays, but the more chances he gets, the better his chances are of doing so. It is only logical that he has more TD’s in the end of seasons while he’s getting more targets. Again, there's no way for me to tell whether target volume is game-plan related. If it is, hopefully Doug Pederson will get hip to this quickly. But I have to assume a large part of this is Ertz building familiarity with his QB.

Quarterback Chemistry


Let's look at that now using the aforementioned Jason WItten as an example. Here are the total stats for the first four years of each player. Celek is included as a reference point.

Witten: 355 TGTS 252 REC 2838 YDS and 14 TD
Ertz: 278 TGTS  247 REC 2840 YDS 13 TD
Celek: 251 TGTS 161 REC 1978 TDS 114 TD.


Ertz's stats are almost identical to Witten's except that he reached those numbers with 77 fewer targets. An interesting note here is that Witten's first year with Tony Romo was good but not great. Starting with their second year Witten put up very good numbers and maintained them throughout most of his career. It seems in this case that having an offseason together and a solid structure helped them to build some serious chemistry.

Can Ertz and Wentz do this? We can only hope. There are some promising signs. For one, Wentz already has a lot of trust in Ertz.  there's a video of Wentz mic'd during a game last year in which he tells the coaches, "Find ways to get Ertz the ball right now.", and "When in doubt, get something where we can get the ball to Ertz, he's the guy that's winnin' every time". Having that video aired for millions to see has likely already gone along way in building some trust and chemistry between the two off the field. We'll see how a full offseason helps translate statistically. It should also help that Ertz will have a second year in the system and better WR's around him.

Conclusion

Ertz is already one of the best TE's the Eagles have ever had. If he can continue that determined style of play we saw at the end of the year in 2016 I think people will soon forget that we ever had issues with his play. If the Eagles can add better skill players around him and he can develop a strong chemistry with Went, the sky is the limit. Hopefully he will end his career a long time from now as the best TE the Eagles have ever known. OR he could suck this year and get traded to the 49ers, what the hell do I know.