By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)
When the Eagles released DeSean Jackson this past offseason, critics reasonably wondered if the loss of the team’s only deep threat would hamper the high-powered offense the team had on display in 2013. However, despite some inconsistencies, the Eagles still find themselves near the top of the league in points and yards per game, thanks in large part to an unlikely source emerging as the team’s primary deep threat. With 7 catches for 163 yards through 2 contests, second-year tight end Zach Ertz currently leads the NFL with a 23.3 yards per catch mark. Setting aside small sample size for a second, that yard per catch would place him top-40 for any receiver in a season in NFL history, illustrating just how impressive he’s been in the downfield passing game so far this season.
Looking historically at the tight end position, the impact Ertz has made as a deep threat would be unrivaled over the course of a full season. None of the best yard per catch seasons by the great tight ends of either the recent era [Jimmy Graham (14.1), Tony Gonzalez (12.9)] or long ago [Dave Casper (17.3), Mike Ditka (19.2), John Mackey (20.7), Kellen Winslow, Sr. (14.5)] stack up to the 23.3 mark Ertz is currently sporting. With no catch over 27 yards, it hasn’t been 1 or 2 big plays skewing those numbers either. All of his catches have gone for big yards, resulting in either first downs or end zone paydirt. Without question, his yards per catch number will fall as Ertz begins making some receptions alright the goal line (he is expected to be the #1 receiving option in the red zone after all). Still, we’ve seen how Chip Kelly has innovated his offense with the loss of Jackson, and it involves a lot of Zach Ertz downfield; don’t expect that to stop.
Let’s take a look at a couple of his big plays against the Jaguars in Week 1 (GIFs courtesy of the fine work done by Larry Mitros on his Inside the Eagles site). First, we have his touchdown to help draw the team within 3 points in the third quarter. Nothing fancy here as Ertz runs a simple seam route against a zone defense and finds the pocket between the linebackers and the two high safeties. However, he makes a tremendous grab on the play, contorting his body back on a ball from Nick Foles that sailed high and behind him.
Two drives later, another big play from Ertz helped set the Eagles up in field position to tie the game. Here, he’s facing man coverage, possibly running an option route with the choice to break to the outside depending upon which way the linebacker plays him. Instead, he heads upfield for what essentially becomes a 4 verticals play for the Birds, using his speed to blow past the linebacker and receive the ball (this time perfectly in stride) from Foles.
We’ve already seen Ertz display a knack for finding those open areas in the defense which are bound to arise within a Chip Kelly offense. With a great set of hands, the speed to outpace linebackers in the open field, and the size to outleap defensive backs near the goal line, Ertz appears set to be a matchup nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators throughout the season. His yards per catch will surely regress some, but his value to this Eagles offense will undoubtedly remain high.