Zach Ertz Is a Fantasy Football Value at His Current Cost
Things went quite well for Zach Ertz in 2017. He had a career season, won a Super Bowl ring, and scored 202.4 points in a point-per-reception (PPR) fantasy scoring format.
Okay, to be fair, he was probably far less interested in that last achievement than those of us playing fantasy football were. It is certainly an impressive number as only two tight ends surpassed it: Rob Gronkowski (227.4) and Travis Kelce (233.5). No other tight end scored more than 175 PPR points, and Ertz accomplished it in 14 games, missing 2 contests with 2 separate concussions.
Ertz was one of Carson Wentz's favorite targets, and Alshon Jeffery was the only Philadelphia Eagle targeted more frequently. Ertz's 110 targets on the season were no aberration; he's surpassed 100 targets in each of the past 3 seasons, and only Kelce and Delanie Walker can say the same. Receiving volume is extremely valuable for tight ends.
Not all targets have the same value, of course, and efficiency with those given targets is key. Ertz finished the 2017 regular season with 0.33 Target Net Expected Points (NEP) per target (which shows the expected points added on all targets throughout the season, including deductions for expected points lost on incompletions and interceptions), tied for sixth among all tight ends with at least 40 receptions. For comparison, Kelce's Target NEP per target was 0.42, and Walker's was 0.09 while the average among all tight ends was 0.21.
Ertz had both volume and above-average efficiency. What does this mean for him in 2018 for fantasy football?
Ertz's Outlook For 2018
Looking at previous year's performance can be informative, but what we're really interested in is Ertz's outlook for 2018. A quick glance at Ertz's career numbers reveals that before 2017, he'd never scored more than four touchdowns in a season. Did Ertz become a more efficient receiver last year?
Actually, his Reception NEP per target was 0.65 in 2017, nearly identical to his 0.66 Reception NEP per target in 2016.
Did head coach Doug Pederson decide to target him more frequently in the red zone?
No dice there, either. Ertz's 18 targets inside the opponent's 20-yard line in 2017 was 1 more than his 17 targets there in 2016.
So, what changed? Well, the guy throwing footballs in his direction saw a massive performance jump in his sophomore season.
Carson Wentz went from a rookie-year 2016 with 3,782 yards, 16 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions, to a 2017 season in which he accumulated 3,296 yards, 33 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions.
More telling than his counting stats were Wentz's increased efficiency numbers. Wentz followed up his 40.25 Passing NEP in 2016 -- 21st among quarterbacks -- to a Passing NEP of 119.06 in 2017, 5th among quarterbacks.
That doesn't fully illustrate his ascension as Wentz missed the final three games of the season after tearing his ACL and MCL while the four quarterbacks ahead of him continued to accumulate Passing NEP for the season. Wentz's 0.25 Passing NEP per drop back was third-highest among all quarterbacks with at least 300 drop-backs. The great news for Ertz's prospects in 2018 is that Wentz appears to be on track to start the season opener.
It would be reasonable to assume touchdown regression for any receiver following a career-high in touchdowns, especially when a portion of those touchdowns are a result of deep passes. Long touchdowns are inherently less predictable as more variables are introduced, such as blown coverages and improvisation following a play that breaks down.
It's notable then that every single one of Ertz's eight touchdowns came on red-zone targets. Five of his touchdowns were a result of targets at or inside the 10-yard line. Ertz has been heavily targeted in the red zone since the implementation of Pederson's system, and there have been no personnel changes in the offseason to indicate that this will change.
In fact, if anything, one personnel move could result in an increase in red-zone targets for Ertz. Trey Burton had seven red-zone targets in 2017, catching six of them for four touchdowns. Burton and his aburdly high efficiency are now members of the Chicago Bears after signing with the team in free agency. His vacant roster spot will be filled by rookie Dallas Goedert, whom the Eagles selected in the second round of the 2018 NFL draft. It would be optimistic to expect Goedert to replicate Burton's performance, given the frequently slow progression of rookie tight ends, and it appears likely that at least some of the red-zone targets that would have gone Burton's way will be re-directed toward Ertz.
Touchdowns themselves aren't great as far as predictive statistics go when compared to a number of other metrics. Interestingly, yards per game is one of the most predictive stats for tight ends, per research by TJ Hernandez. Zach Ertz's 58.9 yards per game in 2017 was the third-most among all tight ends behind only Rob Gronkowski (77.4) and Travis Kelce (69.2).
Another metric that could indicate a potential increase in a receiver's per-game yardage would be that player's efficiency on deep targets. Ertz had 12 targets that were at least 16 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, and he caught 7 of them for a catch rate of 58.3%. The league-average catch rate on deep passes is 39.6%. That kind of efficiency certainly won't deter a team from increasing the deep target share for a player.
The statistic with the very highest year-to-year correlation for tight ends was PPR fantasy points per game, and again Ertz's 14.5 PPR points per game landed him third behind -- wait for it -- Gronkowski and Kelce.
Positional Value, Depth, and Average Draft Position
Perhaps the most important factor in evaluating the value of a player from a fantasy football perspective is comparing that player's expected positional value to their average draft postion (ADP). At the time of this writing, via Fantasy Football Calculator's ADP rankings, Zach Ertz is the 38th overall pick (or pick 4.02) in 12-team PPR drafts. Looking at the overall ADP results, 92% of the players picked before Ertz are running backs and wide receivers.
Ertz's 202.4 PPR points were the equivalent of the 18th-best wide receiver and slot him in as the 13th-best running back. Right now, there are 16 wide receivers with an ADP above Ertz's and 19 running backs.
Additionally, Ertz averaged 14.5 PPR points per game, so let's revise history and say he hadn't missed two games last season. Using his average, he would have ended up with 231.4 PPR points on the season, good for the 10th-best wide receiver and the 9th-best running back.
The value in owning one of the top three projected tight ends is amplified by the landscape of the position. Ertz has yet to crack 1,000 receiving yards in a season and hasn't quite reached the fantasy echelon where Gronkowski and Kelce reside.
What he has done finish each of the last 3 seasons with more than 800 yards receiving, and that includes a 2015 season in which he was catching passes from combination of Sam Bradford and Mark Sanchez. Only 11 wide receivers bested Ertz's 14.5 PPR points per game in 2017. After the top three tight ends, the next-highest PPR points-per-game average belonged to Evan Engram with 11.6. There were 31 wide receivers who matched or beat that number.
Going into this offseason, Hunter Henry was a tight end that I thought had a good shot to challenge for a top season-long point total. His Target NEP per target was 0.65 last season, second only to Gronkowski's 0.75. Henry's unfortunate season-ending ACL tear served to further shrink the depth of the potentially elite tight end pool.
Draft Strategy With a Late-Round Pick
While he doesn't project to outscore the two tight ends ahead of him, Ertz's fourth-round ADP is more forgiving to overall roster construction in a typical draft. This is especially true with a draft slot in the 8-to-12 range.
Looking purely at ADP, at pick 1.08, a draft start of DeAndre Hopkins/Keenan Allen/Rashaad Penny/Zach Ertz is entirely feasible. If Ertz's ADP rises a bit and landing him requires a late-third-round pick, then picking Ertz at 3.08 will likely still net you Alex Collins or Kenyan Drake at 4.04.
I don't mind targeting Gronkowski in the late second round or Kelce in the early third, but it takes you out of the mix to select either multiple projected workhorse running backs or multiple wide receivers expected to receive top-12 target volume. In that case, you need to be confident that you've identified running back and wide receiver targets in the fourth and fifth rounds who are strongly undervalued at ADP.
Targeting Ertz allows you to double-dip in one of the smaller, high-volume-projected groups among either wide receivers and running backs and still land a tight end in Ertz whose PPR points per-game average projects to be within a point or two of the two more expensive tight ends.
Given his consistent usage in the Eagles' offense and his potential to improve upon his 2017 season, Ertz is absolutely worth a selection in the later third or early fourth rounds of fantasy drafts in a PPR format.