The last several days have been a reflection of the belief that this is the golden age of tight ends.
After George Kittle agreed to a five-year, $75 million extension with the 49ers earlier this week, the Kansas City Chiefs and Travis Kelce agreed to a four-year, $57 million extension not even 24 hours later.
Both players rewrote the book at the position breaking the single-season receiving yard record in 2018 with Kelce claiming it in Week 17 and Kittle surpassing it less than an hour later. It’s worth noting both players were integral in leading their teams to the Super Bowl in February, but with both players locked up for the foreseeable future, all eyes turn to the third tight end who broke positional records in 2018 — Zach Ertz.
Before Kittle and Kelce secured their paydays the Eagles had conversations with Ertz regarding an extension, reportedly making him an offer of over $10 million annually, which he declined.
Fortunately for the Eagles, Ertz is still under contract for two more seasons, so while the market has been reset there’s time to evaluate if he’ll will merit that price tag.
As it stands, when Ertz’s deal is up he’ll be 31, something cited when fans include him in the latest hypothetical trade package for whoever is on the market.
A lot can happen in two years, but there’s reason to believe he can maintain his production well into his 30s, justifying a contract extension.
In comparison Ertz is a full year younger than Kelce who caught 97 passes for 1,229 yards this past year. Kelce is a more dynamic pass catcher, averaging at least 12 yards per catch in every season of his career, something Ertz hasn’t done since 2014 when he averaged 12.1 YPC. Ertz, while athletic, has made more of career on nuance, leverage and reliability, traits that generally age well.
Something else Ertz currently has working in his favor is, relatively speaking, a clean bill of health throughout his career, missing just six of 112 possible regular season contests.
Among Ertz’s top tier contemporaries, injuries have been a factor in their drop-off after age 30.
Since Jimmy Graham suffered a knee injury in 2015, he’s had more than 650 yards receiving once in the following four seasons despite playing in all 64 regular season games with elite quarterbacks in Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers.
Greg Olsen is another 4.5 40 tight end who excelled prior to injuries, playing in all but two regular season games for 10 straight years before a foot injury in his age 32 season limited him to just seven regular season games. In the two following seasons he’s played in nine and 14 game respectively, failing to crack 600 yards receiving after posting three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons prior to injury.
If Ertz can make it through the final year of his contract relatively healthy and still maintaining the level of production he has, he could easily justify a market value contract.
In comparison to other tight ends that maintained their health in their later years, Ertz’s skillset could lead to him being productive through his 30s.
Jason Witten, who Ertz has drawn comparison to, put up back to back 700-yard seasons at ages 32 and 33, dipping to below 600 at age 35 in 2017.
Antonio Gates, after missing nine games combined in his age 30 and 31 seasons, bounced back the next two years, posting back to back 800-yard seasons before dipping to 630 at the age of 35.
Finally, another tight end with a similar skill-set who aged well and produced throughout his 30s was Tony Gonzalez. Of course Gonzalez, arguably the greatest tight end of all time, is more the exception than the rule. He missed just one game in his 30s and two in his entire career. If those numbers weren’t mind boggling enough, he produced just one sub 800-yard season in his 30s.
Comparing Ertz to two of the top three players to ever play the position in Gates and Gonzalez may be a stretch but provided he stays healthy, signing Ertz through 2024 provided the team can sort out its looming cap issues isn’t a bad idea.
With that said, the cases against extending Ertz are valid.
Circling back to Olsen, he was one of the game’s best tight ends at age 31 before the foot injury led to a steep drop in production. There’s also the argument that Ertz’s replacement is already on the roster in Dallas Goedert, who’s set to hit free agency at the same time as Ertz. While not as polished as a receiver, Goedert is a superior blocker and despite playing behind Ertz he finished 10th in receiving yards among tight ends in 2019.
In all likelihood, unless the team views the 12 personnel package as a sustainable calling card on offense, only one of the two will be here after the 2021 season unless the Eagles’ looming salary cap issues are ironed out. Even then the team will have to evaluate whether they want to pay two tight ends top of the market money, something both will almost certainly demand based on production.
Though the team has shown a willingness to get a deal done with Ertz, time is on their side. With two full seasons left on his contract, they can afford to see if he can stay healthy and produce at the level he has over the last three years. And if he can’t, his replacement is already on the roster.