The Eagles Offense was subject to some exciting new additions this offseason. From the prolific Alshon Jeffery and LeGarrette Blount, to the likes of Mack Hollins and Donnel Pumphrey, the front office did a brilliant job of surrounding Carson Wentz. But as we head into year two of the Doug Pederson era, there is one particularly polarizing player who will no doubt be watched closely by the media, Zach Ertz. Some love the tight end who led the Eagles in both yards and touchdowns last year, as well as YAC, while others believe him to be a player who blooms when the season is coming to a close.
There is no denying that since entering the NFL, Ertz has always found his rhythm toward the backend of the schedule. The same pattern occurred in 2016…in which the Stanford product and record setting weapon recorded for 443 yards and 3 touchdowns in his last five games. So the question is, why is it that Ertz explodes off the charts so late in the season?
The answer is simple, chemistry. The truth is, since entering in the NFL, Zach Ertz has had anything but stability at quarterback. In fact, Ertz has had four different quarterbacks since being drafted by the Eagles as many years ago. Whether it was Nick Foles or Sam Bradford, it simply takes time to build up a rapport with the man tasked with trusting you and putting the ball in your hands. In 2016, the Eagles asserted their intentions by drafting Carson Wentz, the future of the franchise…and after a shortened offseason working with the “ones” due to a shocking trade that cast Bradford to Minnesota, Ertz was once again in unfamiliar territory.
But throughout Wentz’s rookie season, you could see the chemistry growing stronger between the two…and that goes far beyond statistics.
The thing is about chemistry is that many assume it just happens overnight. That once two players have that bond, it’s an instant mental link that results in 100% of passes caught. The truth is, like any relationship, it’s a process. NFL players have spent their entire lives playing the game of Football, and their mental and athletic traits only help spark that link…but that doesn’t mean it’s a black and white aspect of the game. For instance, one of the first passes against Cleveland was a stunning one handed grab by Ertz that sent a surge of electricity throughout the Linc. Ertz seemed to start the year in the right fashion, but an injury would see him leave the game later on…and then miss a whole month of Football.
So what we saw was a quarterback who spent most of his offseason working with Trey Burton and the “threes”, then propelled into a starting role. Once Ertz went down, it was Burton who stepped up to the mark and hauled in a touchdown pass the very next game against Chicago. After growing confident in Burton as a receiver, Zach Ertz then returned for the showdown against Detroit…and that process had to start a new once again.
It wasn’t like Ertz was thrust straight back into the front lines either. Targeted just three times upon his return, two of his receptions were simply spot routes. They don’t allow for much in the way of routes that would build trust. We all know that Wentz had a slight tendency to overthrow his receivers, and even that was present here as he adjusted his timing to find number 86.
The game against Detroit was also very much the foundation of this bond. Carson Wentz is blessed with time in the pocket here and is able to scan the entire field and roll back through his progression to pick up Ertz over the middle. The ball was still thrown high, but the adjustment by Ertz to make the reception was impressive.
The pattern followed the Eagles into Washington, as Wentz continued to struggle with placement and leading his receiver. One of the most valuable assets a quarterback can bring to a team aside from manipulating a defense with his eyes, is leading his receivers with ball placement. It was a skill that marinated as the season progressed, and there may be no other player who experienced that more than Zach Ertz. On this slant below, Ertz was overthrown causing a drop on what was a would-be touchdown against the Blitz.
A sloppy game against Minnesota saw another example of the chemistry beginning to build. When it comes to the NFL and building relationships, it’s just as much about learning about your receivers as it is improving mechanically. On the below play, Wentz threw behind Ertz, forcing him to adjust and snag the ball out of harms way for a big reception. But if it wasn’t for plays like this for the young quarterback to learn from, then it would be a very different situation heading into year two. The first half of the season almost felt like “Training Camp” from a growth perspective…something that would become inherently clear in the coming weeks.
There were two different sides to Zach Ertz in 2016 as we all know…but a lot of that also had to do with volume and the trust Wentz had in the tight end. That in itself was reflected by the amount of targets Ertz saw after game 7 of his 14 game season.
First 7 games: 34 targets
Last 7 games: 71 targets
Against the Giants, something changed. Ertz was targeted 8 times, the most looks he’d seen so far…and against the Falcons he was thrown to a further 7. Stunningly, the tight end hauled in 14 of 15 attempts. So with the cogs beginning to mesh, what changed?
For one, the symbiotic relationship between the duo began to strengthen. The anticipation of Carson Wentz looked a lot crisper, his presence in the pocket was more composed and he began to hit Ertz in stride, something he had really struggled to do in weeks prior. On a play action look, he’s able to find Ertz who’s wide open on a breaking route over the middle, throwing it directly into his path for a big gain.
Those spot routes that were previously being overthrown? Wentz was now slinging darts straight into the chest of Ertz, enabling him to turn and go to pick up some extra yards, contributing to his high YAC total on the season.
After his inaugural touchdown of the year against the Seahawks, it appeared as though the resurgence was on. The Wentz and Ertz train was leaving the station and heading towards destination explosion. Embodied by what would eventually be 443 yards and 3 touchdowns in his last five games, Wentz just simply began to trust his tight end more. The passes were lower, harder, and the anticipation of Ertz himself also grew. His route running became crisper and the separation he was getting from receivers gave him more room to adjust for his quarterback, only cementing that trust.
And then came ONE of the most beautiful throws we saw Wentz make in 2016. Sure, it was easy and there wasn’t much in the way of a contest…but the touch on the deep ball to lead Ertz into the back corner of the endzone was near perfect. Even in the midst of a heartbreaking loss (and we’ll ignore THAT blocking saga for now), there were still positives to take.
Remember what I mentioned earlier about leading receivers? Well, these next few clips from the games against Washington and Dallas will get you fired up…because this is what a season of growth truly looks like. Wentz simply began to hit Ertz in stride time and time again. The criticisms of Ertz not being able to break tackles I honestly place down to a lot of the time being targeted when coming to a complete halt. Obviously a man running into you is going to pose an obvious disadvantage, but when Wentz hits his tight end and leads him to the top of the route with his throw, the results are impressive, as can be seen on this play action look below.
Before we get to the most encouraging two plays of the year between the two in my opinion, we have to take a look at what a year of development culminates in…Wentz’s most glamorous pass of 2017. After Wentz led Ertz perfectly on a post route, the tight end positioned himself perfectly for an over-the-shoulder catch and hauled in a beautiful touchdown pass, snagging a perfectly thrown dime out of the air.
While these next two plays seem minor in comparison, they show exactly what defines chemistry. The first was an interception against Washington. Lining up against man-coverage, Ertz attempts to break into the endzone on a slant that was slightly overthrown by Wentz and resultedly picked off. Ertz didn’t look as if he was expecting the pass that soon as it zipped between his hip and into the arms of a lurking Redskins corner.
Against the Cowboys just a few weeks later, the Eagles attempted the same play. This time, Ertz gets off the line much better and Wentz leads him into the endzone with a dart. The difference in composure, separation and overall execution is MUCH better here. THAT’s what difference chemistry makes.
For the first time in his career, Zach Ertz heads into a season with continuity at quarterback. While it could be argued he had that with Nick Foles in 2014, the direction here is completely different. If 2016 was a foreshadowing of what’s to come between Wentz and Ertz, then the future is incredibly bright. With a full offseason to prepare and refine the little things, Zach Ertz may be December’s hero no longer…and instead, a potential Pro Bowl candidate.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports