We’ve all heard the debates; how can you use your first pick to draft what amounts to a back-up tight end? The Eagles traded out of the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft before trading back up to get ahead of a tight end needy Dallas Cowboys to select South Dakota State tight end Dallas Goedert in a move that will be debated until a clear answer emerges on the field.
With the highly productive, 27 year old Zach Ertz on the roster and under contract until 2021, why would the Eagles spend precious draft capital to double down at the position? Going beyond player evaluation to discuss why the Eagles would spend their highest pick on a tight end, you have to have a grasp on why this selection came about from a philosophical and analytical standpoint.
Highlighting the frequency in which the Eagles deployed their tight ends last year, they ranked tied for 4th in 12/13 (2/3 tight ends) personnel sets (32%). Trying to find trends among teams with similar tight end usage is tricky and I chose to filter out philosophically contrastive teams with low 11 personnel usage (BAL, TEN, JAC, CAR), as the Eagles went with one tight end and one running back 65% of the time, tied for 11th most in the league. There were four teams with plus 30% 12/13 personnel frequency and plus 60% 11 personnel frequency.
Combining the Philadelphia Eagles, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Indianapolis Colts, Washington Redskins and Kansas City Chiefs, I came away with averages with how they split snaps among their tight ends. TE1 averaged 791 snaps, TE2 averaged 424 snaps, and the rest averaged a combined 265 snaps.
For the Eagles it was nearly identical to the average among those teams, with the departure of Celek and Burton leaving 765 snaps on the table. The Eagles ran 1,074 offensive plays in 2017 (3rd most), that equals 71% of the total snaps being run with what can be considered a ghost on the field (not literally, calm down). The question is how many of those 765 snaps will Goedert take? Will it be closer to the 424 average cited?
"How many snaps is a backup TE going to get though?"— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) May 7, 2018
Zach Ertz played 776 snaps.
Burton/Celek played 765 snaps.#GodErtz pic.twitter.com/auyyyQVoo7
I doubt that the Eagles tight end situation ends up looking like the Buccaneers did, who entered 2017 with a similar situation. Fourth year player Cameron Brate and first round selection in the 2017 NFL Draft OJ Howard both eclipsed over 50% of the Bucs snaps. While Brate is mistakenly glossed over when talking about productive tight ends, he’s still no Ertz, so a split like theirs is unlikely.
Without the benefit of a crystal ball, randomly throwing out a number would be fun to bet on but ultimately useless. Instead, we can dissect why the Eagles should maintain a similar personnel frequency philosophy.
When you hear the Eagles coaching staff speak of plays with two tight end sets, you get a feel for why they use those sets and how they align them to create mismatches in the passing game or deception in the running game. Whether it’s lining them up heavy on the line on one side to run away from an overcompensating defense, splitting them wide and using switch releases to create a one-on-one with a linebacker, or simply dictating defensive personnel via personnel, the Eagles are adept at making defenses reactive rather than proactive. Pair this with their knowledge of the opposing defenses tendencies in down and distance situations and it equals enemy fans asking over and over, “why was [insert bad coverage linebacker/safety] covering Ertz?” It’s no mistake, just sound game-planning.
(Image via Sharp Football)
In 2017 the Eagles uber-productive red zone offense targeted tight ends 34% of the time. On the whole they tied for 6th in tight end target market share (24%), 5th in tight end target success rate, 12th in yards per attempt to tight ends. Beyond positional success, the Eagles had their biggest success targeting the short middle despite their propensity for attacking the short left and right more frequently. The Eagles brass observed all of this and watched the 765 snaps, 55 targets, and 6 touchdowns walk out the door and ultimately traded back up in the second round to ensure they got what they needed to not only continue that success, but to expand upon that success.
Looking at drafting a back-up tight end through the antiquated lens of traditional roles in traditional schemes and personnel deployment are missing the forest for the trees. The Eagles know what they do well, know how they like to dictate to the defense, and leverage their own tendencies and strengths against it to consistently create new, exploitable realities on the battlefield.
I’m not of the belief that Richard Rodgers or Billy Brown provides the type of dynamism required for this scheme to operate at full potential. Giving a creative, flexible offense a new weapon like Goedert to further dictate to defenses was not a must, but it allows them to continue to do what they do well and perhaps do it better.