Eagles

Zach Ertz making significant strides after offseason work with Carson Wentz

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Zach Ertz making significant strides after offseason work with Carson Wentz

The same Zach Ertz who's never had more than four touchdowns in a season now leads all NFL tight ends in touchdown catches. With four.

It's all part of the natural evolution between Ertz and Carson Wentz.

Ertz shares the NFL TD catch lead among tight ends with the Buccaneers' Cameron Brate and the Patriots' Rob Gronkowski.

And going back to last year, Ertz has six touchdown catches in his last seven games and eight in his last 13 games.

In his previous 40 games? He had five touchdown catches.

“I think it's just all the offseason work with Carson," Ertz said. "I think the coaches have a lot of confidence in me down there, and I think that stems from all the red-zone emphasis that we had all spring and summer.

"And then I’ve just made plays, the offensive line has held up, I think Carson is putting the ball in amazing spots, and I just go up and get the ball. I have the easy part."

Ertz had TD catches to give the Eagles' 14-0 leads against the Giants and Cards and then caught two last Thursday that turned a 10-3 deficit into an 18-10 lead as the Eagles beat the Panthers in Charlotte, North Carolina.

He's the first Eagles tight end with four TD catches through six games since Pete Pihos in 1955.

“The biggest thing is A) He puts in the work and B) He’s a really intelligent football player," Wentz said. "He knows coverages, recognizes things, knows when he’s hot (on a blitz).

"He’s really kind of in my head. He knows when I’m about to change his route, those types of things. With a guy like that, that knows how to create separation and play on time and be on the same page as me, that makes it tough to stop."

The touchdowns are most notable, but Ertz is off to the best start of his career in every category. His 34 catches and 405 yards are both second-most among all NFL tight ends to Travis Kelce's 37 and 423 (in seven games).

The Eagles, 5-1, face the 3-2 Redskins Monday night at the Linc. Ertz already has 54 career receptions against the Redskins — third-most ever by a tight end.

“It’s just Year 2 in this system," he said. "I’m a lot more comfortable in my role this year as opposed to last year. I was hurt, missed two games, and I was slowly integrated back into the game plan.

"I think this year I’m extremely confident in my role, I think they have the confidence in me to go out there and make plays when my number’s called, and it’s not going to be 10 targets every game. Last week it was two targets, 20 yards. It’s going to vary each and every week but I’m very happy with how they’re using me right now."

Ertz and Nelson Agholor are the first Eagles tandem with four touchdowns each through six games since Fred Barnett and Calvin Williams each had four back in 1992.

The red zone was a point of emphasis this offseason, and Wentz's numbers in the red zone are off the charts — 62 percent completion percentage, nine touchdowns, no interceptions and a 112.8 passer rating, fourth-highest in the NFL.

Ertz is third in the NFL with five red-zone first-down catches and fourth in the NFL with both six red-zone receptions and 49 yards.

“It’s timing," Wentz said. "It’s a timing thing and being on the same page.

"Red zone’s all about making plays. Playmakers making plays and playing on time down there is so crucial and that’s something we’ve really focused on. I think we’ve gotten better at all our spots on playing on time but he’s a guy that we feel creates mismatches and we take advantage of them."

5 realistic options for Eagles at No. 32

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5 realistic options for Eagles at No. 32

There’s a chance the Eagles don’t even pick tonight. They own No. 32 but could try to move back to gain more draft picks. Very possible. 

But if they don’t, here are five options at 32 from Paul Hudrick and Dave Zangaro: 

Derrius Guice, RB, LSU
PH:
Guice is a bell cow back that will make an impact immediately at the NFL level. If there wasn’t an athletic freak like Saquon Barkley at the top of the draft, Guice would be RB1. He’s powerful, explosive and has outstanding vision.

Sony Michel, RB, Georgia
PH:
Michel shared the backfield during his time at Georgia, but was productive every time he received an opportunity. The tape that stands out is his game against Alabama. He showed elite quickness and elusiveness against the highest level of competition. Michel is a complete back, but just a notch below Guice.

Eagles RB situation
DZ:
The Eagles bring back Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement this season, but after that? There’s nothing in stone. LeGarrette Blount left in free agency. Wendell Smallwood and Donnel Pumphrey are on the roster, but aren’t locks. Kenjon Barner is back on the street, along with Darren Sproles, who might be a candidate to bring back in the summer. Even if the Eagles don’t draft a RB in the first, it would be somewhat surprising if they don’t take one at some point.

Ronnie Harrison, S, Alabama
PH:
Harrison has phenomenal size, length and athletic ability. He’s physical and fluid in his movements. Discipline has to be the biggest concern. At times, he’ll take poor angles or go for the big hit leading to missed tackles. He should excel against tight ends in coverage at the next level.

Eagles S situation
DZ:
Safety is one of the more under-the-radar needs. The Eagles have Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod, but Jenkins is getting older and McLeod’s cap number is rising. With how much the Eagles moved Jenkins around last season, and with Corey Graham gone, the Eagles’ third safety is important. Chris Maragos isn’t the answer; he’s too important on special teams. And despite how much the team has talked up Tre Sullivan, is he really the guy? A safety at 32 makes sense. He wouldn’t start but could play a lot.

D.J. Moore, WR, Maryland
PH:
I have Moore as WR1. He has unbelievably quick feet and reliable hands. He’s tremendous after the catch, always looking to turn up the field. He also shows serious toughness from the wide receiver position. He’ll have to refine his route running, but he could become an elite WR on the outside or in the slot. Moore also has experience returning punts and kicks.

Eagles WR situation
DZ:
Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor, Mike Wallace and Mack Hollins. Good start, right? But after that, the Eagles have a bunch of unproven guys, starting with Shelton Gibson. Even Hollins has more to prove. Agholor finally lived up to his draft status last year but it’s time to start thinking about this future. And Wallace is on a one-year deal. The Eagles could use another weapon … especially one who can return.

Connor Williams, OT, Texas
PH:
This pick represents great value. Williams’ 2016 tape had him as the best tackle going into 2017. An injury derailed his season and draftniks began questioning whether he had the length to succeed at OT. The 2016 version of Williams is an elite lineman, whether at tackle or guard – or even center.

Eagles OL situation
DZ: The starters are set, but Jason Peters is aging and Halapoulivaati Vaitai is the only solid depth piece at tackle if you don’t include super-versatile Isaac Seumalo. The interior depth guys are Seumalo and Chance Warmack. The Eagles always emphasize building along the lines, specifically the offensive line.

Eagles taking a RB at No. 32? History suggests it's unlikely

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Eagles taking a RB at No. 32? History suggests it's unlikely

The last running back the Eagles drafted in the first round was Keith Byars. That was 32 years ago.

The last running back they took anywhere in the first three rounds was LeSean McCoy. Believe it not, that was nine years ago.

It’s been true for decades, and it’s still true today. The Eagles simply do not believe in using premium draft picks on running backs.

And it’s hard to blame them.

The Eagles have had 61 picks in the first three rounds over the last 20 years and used just four of them on running backs – McCoy in the second round in 2009 and Brian Westbrook (2002), Ryan Moats (2005) and Tony Hunt (2007) in the third round.

Shady, who is well on his way to a Hall of Fame career, is actually the only running back the Eagles have taken in the first two rounds since Charlie Garner back in 1994.

“I think running backs the last few drafts you’ve been able to see guys contribute from every part of the draft,” vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas said. “You think about third-round picks, guys like Dave Johnson, Kareem Hunt, Alvin Kamara. Those guys weren’t first- or second-round picks.”

A lot of mock drafts and experts had the Eagles taking a running back in the first round of last year’s running back-rich draft.

But they took a lineman, Derek Barnett, for the 19th time in their last 25 first-round picks.

And they managed to cobble together a running back corps that wound up third in the NFL in rushing yards despite not a single back taken in the first four rounds of the draft in a key role.

“Coming out of the draft everyone thought last year we needed to get a [running back] high,” Douglas said.

“And we ended up addressing it acquiring one player in the draft (fourth-rounder Donnel Pumphrey, who didn’t play), another player after the draft (Corey Clement) and then two more veterans after the draft (LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi). So there’s a lot of different ways you can get those guys.”

Blount and Clement came into the NFL as undrafted rookies. Ajayi was a fifth-round pick. Darren Sproles and Wendell Smallwood were both late-round picks.

Add it all up and you have a Super Bowl backfield without a running back taken in the first 148 picks of a draft.

“We thought maybe there would be an opportunity to get one of those running backs [last year], maybe a different guy than Pump,” executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman said.

“But we went and as a staff attacked it, getting LeGarrette, who had a great year and was really a huge part of our team, and then making a trade and getting Jay. 

“We’re going to attack it in the draft, we’re going to attack it in June, we’re going to attack it in August, and we’re going to attack it at the trade deadline. … This is not the end of talent-acquisition season. It’s really just starting.”

Teams often will bypass even the most talented running backs in the first round simply because their shelf life is so limited.

For every Adrian Peterson, there are 10 Larry Johnsons, C.J. Spillers or Beanie Wells.

The last running back the Eagles took in the first round to rush for 750 yards in a season was Steve Van Buren.

They’ve drafted 10 since taking him in 1944.

But Douglas said the Eagles aren’t philosophically opposed to taking a running back in the first round, although it’s almost impossible to imagine them actually taking one.

“Great running backs are difference makers,” Douglas said. “We’ve seen that in today’s NFL. Special guys coming out of the backfield and can hurt you in the pass game. If it’s the right player, we’re not opposed to taking him.”