While Zach Ertz has undeniably become one of the leagues premier pass-catchers, other aspects of his play have caused many a debate. His ability to block, especially in the running game, has been questioned since he entered the league and occasionally he’s even accused of taking a play off. While I generally think of these doubts in the same vein as “haters gonna hate” something recently caught my attention. Pro Football Focus graded Evan Engram (76.5) higher than they graded Zach Ertz (76.0) for the 2018 season.
George Kittle was the top tight end in the NFL in the regular season. pic.twitter.com/VY95gTC2xZ— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) January 2, 2019
Now, as you may recall, I recently graded Ertz as the best tight end in the division, so naturally, I wanted to get to the bottom of this lunacy and find out what exactly it is that Engram does better than Ertz.
Now I know what you’re thinking... “Why are we comparing someone who had just 45 receptions to our boy, Zach, who caught 116 passes for 1163 yards and 8 touchdowns?” Because cumulative stat lines are irrelevant and misleading, that’s why. Had Engram been thrown the ball 156 times like Ertz was, his stat line would have been something to the tune of 110 receptions for 1406 yards and 7 touchdowns, assuming he maintained his reception rate, his yards/target rate, and his touchdowns per target rate. Now that’s enough for proof of concept, but let’s quit playing what-if and take a look at what actually happened.
One criticism of Ertz we’ve all heard is that he doesn’t get any yards after the catch (YAC), and here is the truth, folks; he ranked 38th out of 41 tight ends last year with just 3.2 YAC per reception. Evan Engram, on the other hand, ranked 2nd overall with 8.7 YAC per reception. Now it’s one thing to just look at these raw stats and make snap judgments about them, but its a completely different discussion when you can actually explain what happened and why.
My first thought was that if Engram is collecting about three times the YAC per reception, he must be breaking significantly more tackles. In 2018, Engram broke 6 tackles and Ertz broke 2. Both of these pale in comparison to George Kittle who led all TEs with 17 broken tackles. Now to be fair, we should look at these as broken tackles per reception, since the cumulative numbers will always be skewed due to the discrepancy of targets between the two tight ends. Here is how the two compare in terms of Avoided Tackles per Reception:
Yikes. In 2018, Engram broke tackles over 7 times more frequently than Ertz did. Engram fell just above the league average, while Ertz was one of the worst tight ends in the game in this regard.
While this discrepancy does not bode well for Ertz, breaking tackles is not the only dependent variable in the equation that makes up YAC up reception. When a receiver catches the ball, they will be a certain distance from the defender that ends up trying to tackle them, and this is a factor that must be accounted for. Thanks to the pretty awesome Next Gen Stats by the NFL, I found the following data:
Double yikes. Engram and Ertz are both given 6.1 yards on average before the ball is snapped, but Engram finds a way to get a league-leading (among WRs & TEs, at least) 4.4 yards of separation, while Zach Ertz is more than a yard shy of Engram with 3.2 yards of separation. While this explains where at least 1 of the 5.5 YAC per Reception difference between the two comes from, it does so in a way that shows Engram earned it. What is even more startling is the YAC Above Expectation metric. Compared to expectation, Engram is able to earn almost 3 more yards per reception. Ertz, on the other hand, earns almost a yard less than what is expected. For what it’s worth, Engram is expected to get 6.1 YAC per reception while Ertz is only expected to get 4.2 YAC per reception. This means that Engram is generally in a better position to collect more yards, but again, it appears he is in a better position due to his ability to gain separation at a league-leading level.
While the data seems to show that Engram was a better route runner and ball carrier, let’s take a look at how the two compare in a variety of other situations.
In situations where the receiver is contested by 1 or more defender while trying to complete the catch, Ertz caught 12 of 32 passes for 81 yards and 2 TDs. QBs throwing his way in these situations threw for a passer rating of 40.6. Similarly, when Engram was targeted while contested, he caught 3 of 12 for 21 yards. QBs throwing to him while contested had a passer rating of 38.6.
In situations where QBs threw a “catchable ball”, Ertz caught 116 of 128 for 1160 yards and 8 TDs when led to QBs having a passer rating of 125.3. For Engram, when thrown a catchable ball, he brought in 47 of 53 for 612 yards and 3 TDs when was good for a passer rating of 133.7.
When facing press coverage, Ertz caught 14 of 21 for 112 yards and a QB rating of 79.9. In the same situation, Engram caught 5 of 9 for 30 yards and a TD which led to a QB rating of 99.3.
When facing NFC East opponents, Zach Ertz caught 45 balls for 424 yards and 4 touchdowns which gave his QBs a passer rating of 107.9. When facing the same opponents, Engram caught 21 passes for 251 yards and 3 touchdowns which was good for a QB rating of 133.0.
Now, I don’t know that I’m ready to admit, or even accept, that Evan Engram is a better receiver than Zach Ertz, but these stats sure make you wonder, don’t they? While catching passes is the primary job of tight ends these days (at least ones in the make of Ertz and Engram), it’s not all they do.
The other portion of a tight end’s offensive duties is blocking. While blocking is generally a pretty hard thing to quantify, our friends at PFF do their best to do exactly that. PFF gave Engram a 73.3 pass-blocking grade, which slightly edges out the 72.3 they gave Ertz. Ertz allowed 3 quarterback pressures on 55 pass-blocking snaps (5.5%), while Engram allowed just 1 pressure on 19 snaps (5.3%). In terms of pass-blocking, it appears the two were neck and neck. In run-blocking scenarios, Engram earned a grade of 60.6 and Ertz earned a grade of just 50.4. While these grades are far from the final verdict, it is interesting to see the young New York tight end edge out Ertz in almost all categories.
Huge thanks to Pro Football Focus, Pro-Football-Reference, and NFL Next Gen Stats for their data which was crucial to this article. Please note that all stats used in this article were from the 2018 regular season, so I do not want to hear you say how “Ertz faced playoff competition which knocked his numbers back” or anything like that.