Zach Ertz showed up to the NovaCare Complex on Wednesday morning with hair so blonde and so bright, it looked like the sun was rising again as he sauntered onto the practice field.
Maybe it was a feeble attempt to go undercover after an uncomfortable offseason, an attempt that was no doubt thwarted when he eventually put on his No. 86 jersey.
Or perhaps Ertz just figures if he’s going to be in the spotlight anyway this summer … what the hell, might as well embrace it, right?
Ertz, 30, reported to training camp this week despite what has to be characterized as a strained — or at least a once-strained — relationship with the Eagles, the team that drafted him in the second round back in 2013. Ertz is an all-time great in Philadelphia, with a chance to break the team’s all-time receptions record this year, but the Eagles didn’t hide the fact that they made him available for a trade all offseason. They just obviously never received an offer they deemed worthy.
So now Ertz, his $8.5 million salary, his 561 career catches and his bleach-blonde hair have returned for a ninth training camp with the Eagles, thus avoiding possible daily fines of $50,000. (Ertz skipped the voluntary spring.)
This is the same guy who said a tearful goodbye to fans at the conclusion of the 2020 season because he — and everyone else — was convinced his time in the city was running out.
And now he’s back.
Seems kind of awkward, huh?
“We have a tremendous opinion about Zach as a player and as a person,” Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said on Wednesday.
“All he wants to do is play football and he knows what kind of player he is. I think, when we look at last year, it was embarrassing for this organization and this team. A lot of us have a chip on our shoulder. When you talk about Zach, it doesn't take a lot to get him here. He cares so much about this team and this city. Just really good to see him out there.”
When asked directly if he expected Ertz to be on the roster for Week 1, Roseman said “Yeah,” and then immediately changed directions, beginning to talk about how exciting it is to have Ertz around as a mentor for the younger skill position players.
Because here’s the thing: Maybe Roseman really does expect Ertz to be on the roster come Week 1.
But if he doesn’t, he certainly isn’t going to tell the rest of the world. NFL general managers are not high on giving up what little leverage they have to trade an aging player with a bloated salary. Ertz is here for now, maybe he’s here for the long haul. It’s still impossible to know and it feels like we’re all stuck in limbo.
While Ertz was at practice on Wednesday and even participated in full-team 11-on-11 drills, he did not speak to reporters. Perhaps that will happen in the coming days. For now, we’re left with a lot of other people talking about him.
“We just want to get him out here and see what he can do in person, right?” head coach Nick Sirianni said. “I've seen plenty of tape on Zach and everything that he's done. He's been such a good player in this league for so long.
“But we just are getting him here in person, seeing what he can do, seeing how we can use him. That's our job as coaches, to figure out how we can use each player and what we can do to take advantage of their abilities. Zach is no different. That's what we're doing right now, is seeing what we can do with him.”
The Eagles would be a better team with Ertz than without him in 2021. Even after the worst year in his career — he had 36 catches for 335 yards and 1 touchdown in 2020 — Ertz still has some tread left on his tires. And in Week 5, when Jalen Hurts needs to throw a check down pass on third down, it would be nice to have a steady player like Ertz on the receiving end.
On the other hand, the NFL is a league with a salary cap and Ertz comes at a cost. And $8.5 million in cap space that the Eagles would save with a trade or cut, space that would rollover into next season, is significant. Plus, Dallas Goedert appears ready to ascend to the Eagles’ top tight end position in his fourth NFL season, which also happens to be a contract year. On Wednesday, Goedert and Ertz split first-team reps but Goedert got the first crack at them.
In this city, we saw when Ertz once overtook Brent Celek as the top tight end. And now it appears that the circle of life has continued.
In recent seasons, the Eagles have been among the league leaders in 12 personnel (two tight ends) usage, in part because of the lack of depth at the receiver position, but also because they had two very talented tight ends on their roster. On Wednesday, Sirianni disagreed with the notion that Ertz’s presence would force him to play more 12 personnel this season than he might otherwise. Instead, Sirianni talked about the options and “multiplicity” that having Ertz would provide.
And, for what it’s worth, Hurts seemed to like the idea of having both Ertz and Goedert with him in 2021 too.
It’s just hard to not wonder if the damage between Ertz and the Eagles is actually reparable. We know Ertz is an emotional player and even admitted that the contract impasse he reached with the team last summer affected him. A lot has transpired in the year since, almost too much to think that it’s all water under the bridge.
“I’m just happy he’s still here,” Brandon Graham said.
That’s really all we know: Ertz is here. For now. And the sun will rise in the morning.
Subscribe to the Eagle Eye podcast: