Can Zach Ertz Thrive Under Philadelphia's New Coaching Staff?
When an NFL team has a player with promising upside and a physical profile that compares him to some of the best at his position, a long-term deal makes sense.
So it's not a surprise that the Philadelphia Eagles announced a contract extension for tight end Zach Ertz today.
The former second-round pick inked a five-year deal, worth $42.5 million, $20 million of which is guaranteed. The deal makes Ertz the fourth highest paid tight end in the NFL.
In his three years of playing professional football, Ertz has made himself into quite the polarizing figure in the fantasy football community. He’s shown flashes of greatness but has also spent time on the bench, due to concerns with his blocking technique.
A big raise is not the only thing changing for Mr. Ertz this offseason.
A huge question mark at quarterback and a rebuilding of the Eagles' coaching staff begs the question: what can we expect from Zach Ertz in fantasy football in 2016?
A wise man once said, “To know where you are going, you must know from where you came.” A similar mantra can apply here.
To examine Ertz’s future outlook, we must first examine his previous performances.
Take a look at the chart below, depicting Ertz’s performances from 2013 through 2015, among tight ends with at least 50 targets. In addition, his Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) and per-target scores are listed. Net Expected Points indicates how a player performs in terms of adding points to his team's expected scoring output.
|Year||Fantasy Points||Rank||Reception NEP||Rank||Reception NEP/Target||Rank|
While not overwhelmingly impressive, the trend shows increased fantasy production from Ertz each year in the league. His final 2015 line of 75 catches, 853 yards, and 2 touchdowns certainly does not blow us away either.
But when you consider that Ertz caught almost 47 percent of his balls in the last four weeks of the year and gained almost 53 percent of his yards in that same span, we see a young player who is certainly trending in the right direction.
His NEP marks also show improvement from year one to year two, followed by a pretty big per-target dip in year three.
Overall, we have a player who has only scored nine touchdowns in three years but has shown mostly positive trends since entering the league in 2013 even though his efficiency declined this year.
The Eagles' offensive outlook for 2016 is one currently shrouded in mystery.
Two pieces of the puzzle already in place are new head coach Doug Pederson and new offensive coordinator Frank Reich. While Pederson is a rookie head coach, his most recent gig as Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator had him overseeing the production of tight end Travis Kelce.
Kelce, another polarizing tight end in the fantasy world, finished the 2015 season with 72 catches, 875 yards, and 5 touchdowns, numbers very similar to Ertz's final tally. His Reception NEP of 61.27 ranked eighth amongst the 28 tight ends with at least 50 targets. This was only one spot ahead of Ertz.
Interestingly, Ertz and Kelce have each been targeted similarly the past two seasons. Ertz has garnered 200 total looks, while Kelce has managed 190.
What we see are two young, athletic, catch-first tight ends, with similar usage and similar production over the last two seasons.
From this data alone, one may conclude that Ertz’s production may not increase sharply under the Eagles’ new regime.
That said, we must consider the addition of Frank Reich as offensive coordinator. Reich has spent his last two seasons as the San Diego Chargers' offensive coordinator, overseeing the production of future Hall-of-Famer Antonio Gates.
While Gates has been a perennial stud since his breakout 2004 season, it’s worth noting that he remained productive, under Reich, in his age 34 and 35 seasons.
In 2014, Gates' Reception NEP of 90.09 was second to only Rob Gronkowski, and his 12 touchdowns tied for first among tight ends (with Gronkowski and Julius Thomas). In 2015, despite missing four games due to suspension and playing through an injured MCL, Gates produced a Reception NEP of 57.45, 10th among tight ends with at least 50 targets.
In the end, we have an offensive coaching staff deeply experienced in utilizing the tight end as a pass catching asset.
But who will be throwing the ball to Ertz in 2016?
That remains a mystery. Incumbent quarterback Sam Bradford is an unrestricted free agent. It is unclear if Bradford will re-sign with the Eagles, though Pederson called him a "top-notch" quarterback. Other options include current backup Mark Sanchez or digging into the annual pile of free agent re-treads. It is also possible that the Eagles draft a quarterback and groom him to be the future of the franchise.
Finally, we must examine the role of fellow tight end Brent Celek. While Celek was the blocking darling of former coach Chip Kelly, he recorded only 35 targets in 2015, the lowest since his 2007 rookie year. It remains unclear what Celek’s role will be under the new regime, but it is worth mentioning that Celek will be entering a contract year in 2016 and will be an unrestricted free agent in 2017.
Zach Ertz is an athletic tight end entering the prime of his career.
His run blocking has improved dramatically since his rookie year. He has a new offensive coaching staff and possibly a new quarterback for the 2016 season.
He’s been locked up by the Eagles for the foreseeable future, and his career numbers and advanced metrics both show some positive trends since his rookie year.
While there are many questions to be answered for the Eagles this offseason, these early developments suggest that Ertz’s role should continue to grow within the offense going forward.