Philadelphia Eagles‘ Michael Vick is a self-proclaimed king-maker. From Alge Crumpler to Roddy White to LeSean McCoy, Vick has taken pride in identifying elite talent on the offensive side of the ball. On a handful of occasions, he has publicly proclaimed that one of his teammates is an heir apparent at his position, and his prediction came to fruition. Given his track record for identifying ascendent players, when Vick spoke to the media about tight end Zach Ertz, Eagles insiders listened. With Ertz, he definitely stated that the 23-year-old Orange, Calif. native would eventually become one of the best tight ends in the NFL.
Ertz responded to his veteran teammate’s proclamation by posting 36 catches for 469 yards and four touchdowns last season. While these rookie numbers were less than 50 percent of what league-leading tights ends Jimmy Graham, Tony Gonzalez and Jordan Cameron produced, Ertz’s 2013 productivity was encouraging.
Ertz had a steep learning curve the moment he arrived at training camp, because he was prohibited from participating the Eagles’ offseason program due to Stanford University‘s graduation rules. After only a few weeks of camp, however, head coach Chip Kelly went out of his way to praise Ertz’s playmaking ability. Kelly even surprised longtime beat writers by penciling the rookie into the depth chart as a co-first string tight end along with veteran team leader Brent Celek.
As the season progressed, Ertz’s role expanded each week, and his receiving production spiked. He caught 22 of his 36 receptions and all four of his touchdowns in the second half of the season. Moreover, he compiled 11 catches for 125 yards and three touchdowns in the last three games of 2013. As the season progressed, he emerged as a true x-factor in the passing game helping the Eagles advance into the NFC Playoffs.
Ertz’s late season emergence was particularly impressive, because tight ends rarely make a significant impact in their first season. Required to learn the intricacies of both run blocking and route running at the NFL level, rookie tight ends typically spend more time watching than playing. For evidence of this phenomenon, here are the rookie year stat lines for the three most productive tight ends in 2013: Tony Gonzalez: 33 catches for 368 yards and two touchdowns in 1997; Jimmy Graham: 31 receptions for 356 yards and five touchdowns in 2010; Jordan Cameron: six receptions for 44 yards and zero touchdowns in 2011.
This trend continued last season as no rookie finished in the top-20 NFL tight ends. However, amongst rookie tight ends with more than ten receptions, Ertz was second in total yardage (469), first in yards per reception (13.0) and first in touchdowns (four). Given how challenging the position is for first-year players, Zach Ertz’s 2013 output, particularly in the second of the season, indicates that the Eagles’ have found their franchise tight end of the future.
Looking ahead, with NFL teams featuring the tight end more prominently, and with Kelly’s offense requiring maximum versatility out the position, the Eagles will draw up new and creative ways to get the ball in Ertz’s hands. While Zach Ertz has yet to fulfill Vick’s intuition, he is on a trajectory to ascend to the top of the league’s tight end ranks and prove Michael Vick right once again.