July 29, 2021
Zach Ertz is the best tight end in Philadelphia Eagles franchise history, a Super Bowl hero, and a fan favorite. As such, he will forever be a legendary figure in Philly.
Emotional and sentimental attachments aside, however, there's no good reason that Ertz should remain on the Eagles' roster in 2021.
Ertz is in the last year of his contract, and he'll count for $12,721,500 on the team's salary cap in 2021, which would account for 6.2 percent of their available spend. If the team were to trade or release him, they would save on the $8.5 million in salary that Ertz is owed this season.
The team seemed to believe that $8.5 million in cap space was more valuable than keeping Ertz for one last year in a likely non-contending season, as he has been on the trade block for around nine months now. However, teams around the league have been unwilling to meet whatever likely unrealistic price the Eagles have set for Ertz's services.
After a season in which Ertz made public his unhappiness with the team, followed by a tearful post-season media goodbye session, he not only (somewhat surprisingly) showed up to training camp when players reported on Tuesday, but he was also a full participant in practice on Wednesday, meaning that the Eagles did not excuse him from the more strenuous portions of practice for trade/preservation purposes.
That is a risky choice. If Ertz were to sustain a moderate injury, his value would no doubt drop further, and a serious injury would leave the Eagles holding the bag on his $8.5 million salary.
Yet, on Wednesday, Howie Roseman was asked if he expected Ertz to be on the roster in 2021, and he indicated that indeed he did.
"Yeah, I think when you talk about the guys that are here and the kind of player that he is, and you think about our young skill position group, and having a Pro Bowl player like that on your roster who players can learn from, it's huge," he said. "It's huge for us. I think that, again, just really excited to have him here, and being out there today is huge for our football team as we get started."
Of course, Roseman had little other choice to answer in the affirmative if he's still trying to maximize any return on Ertz in a trade.
Ertz led the Eagles in receiving in four of the five years during the Doug Pederson-Carson Wentz era. The exception was 2020, when he missed five games and produced career lows in receptions (36), yards (335), yards per catch (9.3), yards per target (4.7), and TDs (1). He also had five drops, for a drop percentage of 12.2 percent, the worst of his career.
The following is a look at the 10 highest-paid tight ends in the NFL (via overthecap.com), with their accompanying 2020 stats:
|NFL TE||Avg $ / year||Rec-yards-TD||YPC||YPT|
|George Kittle (27)||$15,000,000||48-634-2||13.2||10.1|
|Travis Kelce (31)||$14,312,500||105-1416-11||13.5||9.8|
|Jonnu Smith (25)||$12,500,000||41-448-8||10.9||6.9|
|Hunter Henry (26)||$12,500,000||60-613-4||10.2||6.6|
|Austin Hooper (26)||$10,500,000||46-435-4||9.5||6.2|
|Zach Ertz (30)||$8,500,000||36-335-1||9.3||4.7|
|Kyle Pitts (20)||$8,227,624||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|Rob Gronkowski (32)||$8,000,000||45-623-7||13.8||8.1|
|Jimmy Graham (34)||$8,000,000||50-456-8||9.1||6.0|
|Darren Waller (28)||$7,450,001||107-1196-9||11.2||8.2|
As you can see, Ertz's numbers fell short of the other top earning tight ends on that list, including the disappointing ones.
Injuries have taken a toll on Ertz's body, and he'll turn 31 in November. Was it just one bad season? Should Ertz be expected to rebound and become the player he was in his prime? Or is his decline already in motion?
While better production should be expected of Ertz in 2021 because of the low bar set in 2020, there's ample reason to believe that he is on the downside of his career.
As you're no doubt aware, there's a legitimate starting tight end on the Eagles' roster who is now probably the TE1 — even if Ertz remains on the roster — in Dallas Goedert (26).
Many would object that Goedert is "better" than Ertz. Certainly, Goedert has a long way to go before he can even be compared to what Ertz has been over the bulk of his career. That said, Goedert very clearly outperformed Ertz across the board as a receiver in 2020:
|Eagles TEs||Targets-Rec-Yards-TD||YPC / YPT||Catch %||Avg YAC||Drops|
|Zach Ertz (11 games)||72-36-335-1||9.3 / 4.7||50.0%||2.4||5|
|Dallas Goedert (11 games)||65-46-524-3||11.4 / 8.1||70.8%||4.5||3|
Yes, Carson Wentz stunk last season and the offensive scheme was uninspiring, but Ertz irrefutably had a bad season on his own merits. And of course, Ertz's blocking has improved some over the years, but it has never been a strength, while Goedert has proven to be a quality blocking tight end. Even if you believe he has something to prove, Goedert was the better overall tight end in 2020, and it wasn't really that close.
As for Roseman's above comments about teammates being able to learn from Ertz, by this point in Goedert's career, having played behind Ertz for three years already, what more could there be to learn from him? At this point, Ertz's presence on the team could be viewed more as a hindrance than a benefit to Goedert.
And if the argument is that players at other positional groups can gain wisdom from Ertz's experience in the league, there are plenty of other leaders in the locker room who can give general guidance, like Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks, Lane Johnson, Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, and Rodney McLeod, to name a few.
In recent years, the Eagles heavily utilized two-TE sets. In fact, they played 12 personnel more than any other team in the NFL. They were also one of the least explosive offenses in the NFL over the last two seasons, averaging 6.2 yards per pass attempt in 2020 (31st in the NFL) and 6.6 yards per attempt in 2019 (26th).
That doesn't mean that two-TE sets are bad and shouldn't be used, ever. As a tool within the offense, having two capable tight ends can be useful, as Nick Sirianni pointed out.
"I think Zach's presence makes you more multiple of what you can do," Sirianni said. "You have your 11-personnel things. Now the defense has to prepare for all your 11 stuff. You have your 21-speed stuff that the defense has to prepare for because you have these different pieces. Then they have to prepare for the 12 stuff. You might be running similar things out of each one of those sets, but out of different formations, out of different personnel groups and it looks completely different to the defense.
"What we always talk about is if we are in 11, because that's where you might be going, who does things better? Who’s better at this route? Who’s better at this route? It's a blend. It's always been that way.
"In fact, teams that I've been on have always had two good tight ends and it was always a blend of how you use them and what you use them as. Just that multiplicity of being able to use 12 personnel and be dangerous there. It's different between 12-personnel because we have two tight ends and 12-personnel because we have two tight ends that can roll. Puts a ton of stress on the defense."
Also, yes, Ertz's presence on the roster would likely help a young quarterback like Hurts. Ertz can still run good routes, and he's going to be where he's supposed to be.
That's all valid, but when your backup tight end is the sixth-highest paid player at his position in the NFL, that's money well-spent elsewhere, again, especially when the team isn't likely to contend in 2021.
Attempting to manufacture additional playing time for Ertz could come at the expense of snaps for younger players who could have a long-term future with the team, like Goedert, or, say, Travis Fulgham.
And if the Eagles were able to find a trade partner for Ertz at the deadline, is his value really going to be that much higher than it was during the offseason, and after you've already paid half his $8.5 million salary on the season, while risking injury along the way?
While Ertz has been sort of "the good soldier" by showing up to camp and participating, it is clear that he would be happier somewhere else. It's also quite clear, in my view, that the $8.5 million in savings that can be earmarked for a long-term piece during the 2022 offseason is more valuable than the benefits of having Ertz on the roster for one more season in 2021, and the Eagles are playing a dangerous game by risking getting him hurt in camp.
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