Is Zach Ertz Ready to Make the Leap for the Philadelphia Eagles?
I think it's probably safe to say that no team has been more ambitious -- or headscratchingly confusing -- than the Philadelphia Eagles this offseason.
They're also shrouded in mystery at the quarterback position after having swapped Nick Foles for Sam Bradford, bringing back Mark Sanchez, and being one of the most -- apparently -- serious suitors for Marcus Mariota, the Heisman winning quarterback from Oregon.
Amidst all this offensive change, it's hard to figure out how the Philadelphia offense will actually look by Week 1. Come to think of it, that's probably what Chip Kelly wants for his opponents.
But losing Maclin (and DeSean Jackson last year) leaves the Eagles with a bit of a puzzling combination of pass-catchers. Jordan Matthews was efficient last year, but one of the biggest cogs in making this new-look offense work at full capacity could very well be the most underutilized tight end -- a very subjective statement -- of 2014: Zach Ertz.
Is Ertz ready to step up into a bigger role and give the Eagles an elite threat at tight end?
Well, to answer that, we have to turn to the numbers.
E is for Efficiency
At numberFire, we don't just rely on yards and touchdowns to measure a player's impact because does a player really deserve a ton of credit for catching a 15-yard pass on 3rd-and-20 late in the fourth quarter? That will show up in the stat sheet, but its impact will be limited in our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which accounts for factors such as field position and score when the plays are made. In all, NEP works to show us how many points a player adds (or subtracts) from his team's overall point output in terms of expected points.
So, through the lens of NEP, how good was Ertz in 2014?
Among the 27 tight ends who saw at least 50 targets last year, Ertz's Reception NEP, the expected points he added with his receptions, of 63.72 ranked ninth. That initially appears impressive, of course, because Ertz suffered the limitations of a timeshare at tight end with Brent Celek.
In fact, Ertz played on only 50.0 percent of the Eagles' offensive snaps, according to FantasyData.com.
However, because of the Eagles' uptempo approach, he did play 798 snaps, and four of the tight ends ranked ahead of him posted better Reception NEP scores on fewer snaps: Antonio Gates (771 snaps, 90.09 Reception NEP), Jimmy Graham (784, 73.56), Travis Kelce (737, 72.26), and Coby Fleener (789, 70.20).
Still, Ertz's Reception NEP on a per-snap basis was 0.08, and only three 50-plus target tight ends secured a rate better than 0.09: Rob Gronkowski (0.14), Gates (0.12), and Kelce (0.10).
Per target, Ertz added 0.72 Reception NEP, which ranked eighth in the group. By pretty much any of our efficiency measures, Ertz was a top-10 tight end last year despite his limited snap rate.
Splitting Snaps with Celek
Regardless of how good Ertz has been, there's still a major barrier in front of him: Brent Celek.
Since it's impossible to predict just how much more attention Ertz will get in 2015, we have to assume that Celek will eat into his production to some degree, but does he really warrant it?
Well, not really.
In 2014, Celek posted a Reception NEP of just 21.07, good for a per-target average of just 0.41, which ranked 25th and 22nd, respectively, among the 27 tight ends in with at least 50 targets (Celek had 52). Even with the benefit of few targets, Celek couldn't piece together efficiency.
Worse yet, his Target NEP, which indicates expected points gained or lost on all targets thrown at a player, was -7.87, last in the subset. Now, that could be the result of poor quarterbacking, but Ertz managed to post a Target NEP of 29.98, more than six touchdowns better during the course of the season.
Filling a Void
Jeremy Maclin is leaving some significant volume on the table in Philadelphia. Maclin's 148 targets tied for eighth among all receivers, and his Reception NEP (111.21) ranked ninth among 99 receivers with at least 50 targets.
Jordan Matthews wound up with the 30th-best Reception NEP in the group (78.90), and his Reception NEP per target (0.77) ranked 24th. (Maclin's was 0.78, ranking 22nd.) Meanwhile, Riley Cooper posted a Reception NEP per target of just 0.48, 84th among the 99 receivers with 50 or more targets.
The truth is that the only Eagles to maintain a Reception NEP better than 0.48 were Maclin, Matthews, and Ertz, all of whom were at least 0.72 or better. (In case you're curious, Darren Sproles posted a score of 0.40, and McCoy posted an abysmal 0.04.)
It's likely that Chip Kelly will continue to involve Celek and the rest of his offensive pieces heavily, but it's fairly clear that Ertz -- especially compared to the current talent on the depth chart -- is ready to take the next step in 2015.
Once they figure out what they're doing at quarterback that is.