If you were to make a list of the Eagles' most underused players from last season, Zach Ertz would be near the top. The 24-year-old tight end is entering his third season with the team, and despite his obvious talent as a receiver, he has yet to see consistent playing time.
He's shown flashes, yes. The 6-5, 249-pounder crushed his career-high in targets in last December's game at Washington,
catching 15 passes on 18 targets with 115 yards. Ertz's previous career-high in targets came the year prior against the Vikings in week 14, where the tight end recorded six receptions on nine targets.
In his career, Ertz has 94 catches on 146 targets for 1,171 yards with seven touchdowns, and has averaged 12.5 yards per reception. However, he has only averaged 2.9 receptions per game. For the Eagles' offense to hit on all cylinders this upcoming season, Ertz will need to have more opportunities in the passing game. This isn't so much on the quarterback as it is on Chip Kelly.
Run blocking is a trait that Kelly covets in his receivers and tight ends. It was his reason for keeping Riley Cooper on the field for 81.3 percent of the team's offensive snaps last season, and it's the reason why Ertz has only been on the field for 45.4 percent of the team's offensive snaps in his first two NFL seasons.
Brent Celek's ability as a blocker is what earned him 15 starts last season. Kelly publicly praised Celek's blocking last November in an interview with NJ.com.
"Brent's an outstanding blocker," Kelly said, "I think he may be the best blocking tight end in the league."
At the time these comments were made, Pro Football Focus had Celek ranked fourth among 61 qualifying tight ends in the league in blocking efficiency. While Ertz ranked 21st, he was one of only 22 to receive a positive score. With Kelly's offense relying heavily on the run game, his explanation as to why he was favoring Celek over Ertz makes sense. Ertz is too talented to keep off the field, however. His ability as a receiver and the fact that he is six years younger than Celek should, alone, merit Ertz more playing time in 2015.
With the moves made in the offseason to bring in DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews—running backs that possess the style of running Kelly prefers—the tight end's blocking should be emphasized even more so by Kelly than ever before.
Ertz has taken it upon himself to improve his skills as a blocker this season, and has worked with former Dallas Cowboys offensive line coach Hudson Houck to work on his blocking technique. The work has already paid off, as his improvements caught the attention of tight end coach Justin Peele during last month's practices.
"Zach’s worked really hard this offseason," said Peelle. "He worked really hard at it last year. [Former tight end coach Ted Williams] and I worked with him after practice last year. He’s continued to work in the offseason, and now that we’re here he’s really concentrating on it. It’s to his credit. That’s what Zach does. He works hard. He’s shown improvement."
Last season, Ertz saw only 587 offensive snaps last season, good for 49.9 percent. Celek on the other hand saw 815, good for 69.3 percent. If Ertz's blocking ability continues to show significant improvement come training camp, those numbers could begin to swing in Ertz's favor.
With a young but talented group of receivers highlighted by Nelson Agholor, Jordan Matthews, and Josh Huff, Kelly must make it a priority to give Ertz more opportunities in the passing game. If he does that, he'll add another valuable weapon to his arsenal, and give the quarterback—Mark Sanchez or Sam Bradford-— more options in the passing game.
Many thought last season would be Ertz's breakout season. While 24-year-old did show improvement—catching 22 more passes (58) than he did in 2013 (36)—it wasn't the "breakout" season many predicted. 2015 needs to be that breakout season.