Why Zach Ertz Is Philadelphia Eagles' Biggest X-Factor in 2014

Cody SwartzSenior Writer IAugust 24, 2014

Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz catches a pass during NFL football training camp Thursday, July 31, 2014, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Matt Rourke/Associated Press

Chip Kelly’s offseason decision to release DeSean Jackson was easily the most controversial move the Philadelphia Eagles’ head coach made this offseason.

After all, Jackson wasn’t just a good player; his breakaway speed led to career-bests of 82 receptions and 1,332 yards, opening up underneath routes for Riley Cooper, LeSean McCoy and the tight ends. Jackson’s departure places an inordinate amount of pressure on third-year quarterback Nick Foles to prove the 2013 season wasn’t a fluke.

Foles will have to rely heavily on seam patterns to tight ends and bubble screens to running backs, and that presents a good opportunity for up-and-comer Zach Ertz to emerge as a star.

Ertz has loads of potential. He’s 6’5”, 250 pounds, and he ran a 4.68 40-yard dash coming out of college. Ertz led his positional group in reps in the bench press (24), which gives him the coveted size/strength combination to be a mismatch nightmare, particularly in the red zone.

Zach Ertz gets open every day. His ability to find space and his catch radius have stood out. Run blocking aside, Eagles need him on field

— Zach Berman (@ZBerm) August 14, 2014

Ertz caught 36 passes for 469 yards and three touchdowns as a rookie, and he saw action in just 459 snaps, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). That rated him just 41st at his position in snaps played, yet he was 26th in receptions and 22nd in yards. His role should only increase this coming season.

In the last decade, there have been 10 tight ends to catch at least 450 yards as rookies. Five of those ended up making the Pro Bowl. Two others (Dustin Keller and Randy McMichael) had very strong careers. That bodes well for Ertz, who has serious fantasy breakout potential for 2014. Rotoworld’s Adam Levitan ranks Ertz as the fourth-biggest preseason star thus far.

Ertz is third among all tight ends in receiving yards this preseason. He’s going to be competing with a handful of players for targets—Jeremy Maclin, Riley Cooper and Jordan Matthews are the top receivers, Brent Celek is still a valuable asset as a tight end and both McCoy and Darren Sproles will catch passes out of the backfield.

The 2013 Eagles played Celek for 864 snaps and Ertz for 459, per PFF. That breakdown should be more of an even split this season, especially if Philadelphia opts for more two-tight end sets, which is a certainty given Ertz’s tremendous versatility and skill set.

Zach Ertz has been in for 31 of 49 snaps. 13 of those snaps came in 11 personnel. 10 of those snaps came in the slot.

— Nathan Jahnke (@PFF_NateJahnke) August 22, 2014

Ertz probably won’t join the elite class of tight ends—Gronk, Jimmy Graham, Jordan Cameron and Julius Thomas—but that could be more due to the influx of targets on the Eagles than Ertz’s lack of skills. Celek is still a grizzly veteran who can catch passes and block well. And take a hit. As long as he’s around, Ertz won’t be playing full-time yet.

But he’s not Ertz. Ertz will unofficially take the starting job from Celek this year. The Eagles’ coaches are extremely high on his skills. Ertz isn’t lacking in confidence himself. And he’s going to make his mark in the red zone. After all, he put up really good numbers last year inside the opposition’s 20-yard line.

Information per Jordan Plocher, @StarvingScout on Twitter

The new NFL allows tight ends to really make or break football games. No longer are they glorified blockers that catch an occasional pass. Now they’re leading receivers in the offense. Should Maclin get injured, the receiving corps will shift entirely.

Ertz could become the focal point for Foles. It’s not unreasonable to think Ertz leads the team in receptions and pushes for 800-900 receiving yards. And if that happens, this Eagles’ offense could be flat-out dynamic.