How Much Regression Should We Expect from Zach Ertz in 2019?
Zach Ertz had a truly historic season in 2018.
By the end of his 16 games, he was the all-time leader among tight ends in targets (156) and receptions (116) for a single season. Those numbers paved the way for 1,163 yards and 8 touchdowns, good enough for second-best at his position in PPR formats. What will he do for an encore?
The question when a player completes a GOAT-like outlier season is not will they regress, but rather how much should we expect them to regress.
On August 13, Zack Rosenblatt, the Eagles beat writer for NJ.com, wrote that Ertz’s targets “will likely go down” due to offseason additions and improvement of other pass-catchers on the team. That is like me saying I “will likely” not make an NFL roster this upcoming season. Or there “will likely” be someone that jumps on a flaming table at a Buffalo Bills tailgate this year.
Rosenblatt’s opinion, even backed up by some superficial evidence, is not particularly helpful to fantasy players. We must focus on the amount of expected regression and speculate what that means for future production.
While Ertz is still undoubtedly near the top of the tight end class for 2019, there are a number of reasons drafters should proceed with caution at his current ADP in the middle of the third round.
Target and Target Share Reduction
While Ertz set a positional record with 156 targets in 2018, it’s not uncommon for tight ends – especially in the modern passing age – to post monster target seasons. Since the statistic has been tracked in 1992, there are 126 cases where a tight end was targeted more than 100 times. There are also 33 cases where a tight end was targeted at least 125 times, including three just last year! It wouldn’t surprise us to see Ertz show up on these lists again in 2019, but what deserves consideration is the number of targets tight ends with elite volume end up with the following season. Below is a chart of all 33 tight ends with at least 125 targets since 1992 and their targets the following season:
An average of 37 fewer targets the following season is a significant decrease and is a concern for Ertz truthers. Even if we remove the outliers of 2010 Dallas Clark, 2017 Greg Olsen, and 2011 Chris Cooley, who all lost seasons due to injury, we still see an average of 30 fewer targets per player.
A reasonable and conservative usage prediction for Ertz in 2019 would be for him to regress back to his three-year average from 2015 to 2017, when a typical season consisted of 110 targets and 76 receptions - still good enough for top 3-5 in his position.
Volume Masking Inefficiency
Those 156 targets and 116 receptions look all nice and shiny on the surface, but under the hood lies a different story that tells a tale of inefficiency covered by volume.
Among all tight ends with at least 40 targets in 2018, Ertz ranked 22nd of 28 in Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) per reception. Names you won’t find at the top of the fantasy tight end leaderboard -- Ryan Griffin, Benjamin Watson, C.J. Uzomah, Chris Herndon -- all beat Ertz on a per-play basis last year, but his overwhelming volume allowed him to pull well out in front in terms of raw points.
Looking back again at the list of 33 tight ends with at least 125 targets since 1992, some interesting patterns emerge. Ertz ranks just 31st in yards per catch on that list, presumably because of how shallow he was when targeted.
Ertz’s average depth of target (aDOT) in 2018 was just 7.2 yards, ranking 16th of the 28 tight ends with at least 40 targets last season.
If Ertz could get Travis Kelce or O.J. Howard air yards per target, we could expect his efficiency to skyrocket, but the Eagles -- based on last year's usage -- seem content to send players such as DeSean Jackson (18.1 aDOT with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and Alshon Jeffery (11.1 aDOT) long while targeting tight ends in the short- to mid-field.
Philadelphia running backs as an entire unit only had 77 receptions last season, so the tight ends served as an underneath safety valve that might otherwise be the role of a strong pass-catching back on another team.
Eagles’ Tight End Usage Patterns
Ertz would clearly have never come close to 156 targets in 2018 if he did not play within a scheme that was conducive to tight end success. Is the scheme repeatable? It’s probably too soon to tell. The Eagles led the league by targeting their tight ends 35% of the time last season, according to Sharp Football, beating the second-place Kansas City Chiefs by five full percentage points (the NFL average was 20% for 2018).
For context, the Eagles only threw to their tight ends 24% of the time in 2017 and 21% in 2016. Perhaps highlighting the tight end is the new world order for Doug Pederson, Mike Groh, and company, but no other team threw to the position more than 32% of the time the past three seasons, so we may be looking at another outlier.
Further complicating matters for Ertz is the emergence of Dallas Goedert. While Goedert is expected to miss the rest of training camp with a calf injury, he was actually more valuable on a per-catch basis in 2018.
Goedert (0.86) outpaced Ertz (0.77) in Reception NEP per reception last year while seeing a quarter of the volume of his tight end counterpart. This validates what coaches and beat reporters have been proclaiming since offseason OTAs, that Goedert would be featured more in the upcoming season.
Philadelphia’s offensive groupings certainly show that is a possibility in 2019. The Eagles ran the second most “12” personnel in the league last season (1 running back, 2 wide receivers, 2 tight ends), setting the stage for more evenly distributed targets if they do lead the league in target share to their tight ends again.
How Do We React to Inevitable Regression?
The pendulum has already begun to swing for Ertz in recent drafts. Two months ago, Ertz was drafted at pick 3.03 on average. That has now fallen to 3.08, essentially identical to George Kittle in current average draft position. The drop-off from the top three tight ends to the next tier is steep, so the desire to value elite tight ends more highly than we should is certainly enticing.
I’m personally drafting Ertz as the player he was in 2016 and 2017, a top-five tight end, but one that I am more comfortable within the fourth round, after rostering some combination of three running backs and wide receivers. If that means I miss out on Ertz in 2019, so be it. Give me Howard or Evan Engram in the fifth.
Our algorithms rank Ertz 50th overall, far lower than his 33rd overall draft cost.