Southern Hospitality: Why Zach Ertz Could Find Success in the AFC South
True North's Jesse Patterson (@df_patterson) looks at how two teams in the AFC South may be a prime destination for once top end TE, Zach Ertz.
Barring an out of this world season by the Jacksonville Jaguars' and 2021 first overall pick QB Trevor Lawrence, the AFC South division in 2021 should be a two horse race from weeks 1 to 18. Last season the division crown went to the Tennessee Titans, who earned that honor by virtue of a tiebreaker over the Indianapolis Colts, after both franchises finished with identical 11-5 records. The Colts and Titans should once again be in a dogfight this season for the divisional title, as both boast playoff-caliber rosters brimming with talent. While I do agree that Lawrence is a tantalizing prospect and was absolutely worth his draft pedigree, I feel that Urban Meyer and the rest of the Jaguars organization will experience some growing pains for a few seasons before they can consider themselves contenders in the AFC South.
There is of course one more franchise in this division that I have yet to mention, but anyone with a modicum of common sense will admit that the Houston Texans are not even close to fielding a quality team that is feared by opponents this year. I am sorry to have to tell you Texans fans, but the damage done to your franchise by the previous regime, coupled with the ongoing yet unresolved legal issues and trade demand by your franchise QB Deshaun Watson, means a long and painful rebuilding process will be forthcoming in order to gain any semblance of legitimacy.
This brings us back to the two top teams in the AFC South, Indianapolis and Tennessee. Both organizations have given fantasy aficionados multiple viable options when it comes to rosterable and startable players. Whether it is top-end RB studs in Derrick Henry and Jonathan Taylor, an absolute beast of a WR duo in AJ Brown and the newly acquired Julio Jones, or depth players to fill out your roster such as TY Hilton, Michael Pittman, Josh Reynolds, or Ryan Tannehill, there is a lot to like about these offenses.
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One position that is currently lacking on both rosters is a true weekly starter at TE. Former Titan Jonnu Smith, who finished as the TE9 last season, signed with the New England Patriots as a free agent, leaving fourth year pro Anthony Firkser atop the Titans depth chart. Indianapolis worked with a platoon at the position last year which was led by now-free agent Trey Burton (TE24) as well as veteran Jack Doyle (TE36) and basketball player-turned TE Mo Alie-Cox (TE27). The Colts did draft promising rookie Kylen Granson in the fourth round this past April, but rookie TEs rarely make an impact in their first year in the league.
One major change for these franchises was a February trade that saw Indianapolis acquire QB Carson Wentz from the Philadelphia Eagles to be their new starter, following the retirement of last year’s QB20 Philip Rivers. After being benched in favor of Jalen Hurts, the Wentz-to-Indianapolis rumors began to surface as pundits yearned to reunite Wentz with his former offensive coordinator and current Colts head coach, Frank Reich. If you recall, Reich helped guide Wentz to a career-best season in 2017 where he finished as the fantasy QB5 despite a season-ending injury that he suffered in his thirteenth game of the season. Following the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory that year, Reich was rewarded for his efforts by being named the head coach in Indianapolis, and Wentz’s career seemed to sputter in his absence, culminating in his week 14 benching and subsequent trade. Now reunited with the man who guided him to the best statistical season of his career, will Wentz be the puzzle piece that pushes the Colts to be the unquestioned top team in the division?
One reason that Wentz was able to be so successful in Philadelphia was his success in the short passing game, specifically utilizing the TE position. It is no secret that Coach Reich loves to involve the TE position in his passing attacks. It is also no surprise that Carson Wentz sees his most success when throwing to that position. In 2018, Reich’s offence targeted the position a league-leading 37.2% of the time. In 2019, Wentz continued to look their way on 38.5% of his passes, good for second in the league, trailing only the Baltimore Ravens. In 2020, Wentz and the Eagles offence once again finished second in the NFL in percentage of passes thrown to TEs with a 30.2% rate. Coincidentally, Reich also continued to favor the position, as the Colts finished in the top 10 in TE targets, connecting with them on 22.8% of their attempts. Will the underwhelming combination of Doyle, Alie-Cox and Granson be able to replicate this success in 2021? Or could Reich and Wentz look to shore up their chances by adding a player who has already had fantastic success with this duo in the past?
Enter veteran TE, and three time pro-bowler Zach Ertz. It was reported in early March that the Eagles had granted Ertz permission to seek a trade, as the team was heading in a younger direction and were comfortable entering the season with Dallas Goedert atop the depth chart. Ertz has since been linked to several teams, and has refused to report to offseason activities with the Eagles while he awaits his eventual trade or release from the organization. No deal has materialized at the time of this writing, but several teams are rumored to be interested in the veteran. It is entirely possible the Eagles asking price is just too high, or that teams are simply waiting for his inevitable release as Ertz still has one year remaining on his five year $42 million deal he signed in 2017. Upon his release, Ertz will be free to sign with whatever team he choses, and why not choose a situation with a familiar quarterback, playing in a coaching system in which he already has a proven track record of success with? As he is set to kick off his eighth professional season at age 30, Ertz could potentially land in a situation in which his comfort level would be high playing with a QB in Wentz and coach in Reich whom he has already had success with, while also being on a playoff-calibre roster with championship aspirations.
Of course the road to that championship could be blocked by divisional rivals the Tennessee Titans, a team that could also use a player of Ertz’s pedigree and talented track record. Like the Colts and Eagles, the Titans have not been shy about targeting the TE position in their offensive attack. Tennessee finished fourth in the NFL last season with 29.6% of their pass attempts targeted to the TEs. Now departed Jonnu Smith was actually targeted ninth most in the entire NFL in the red zone last season, drawing 17 targets inside the 20 yard line. Seeing the obvious Wentz/Reich/Ertz connection, it is possible that the Titans jump the queue and trade for the TE prior to his release. Not only does this address an area of need for Tennessee at a position they have successfully utilized in the past, but it prevents their biggest divisional rival from improving themselves.
The recently reported trade for seven time Pro Bowler and two time All-Pro WR Julio Jones indicates that the Titans themselves are ‘all in’ on making a title push. Tennessee clearly wants to make a Super Bowl run while Derrick Henry is still in his prime, and by acquiring an aging star in Jones, they have sent a message to the NFL that they consider themselves Super Bowl contenders in 2021. Faced with the possibility of losing Ertz for nothing by releasing him, the Eagles would surely take a late-round pick from the Titans in exchange for him at this point, though it should be noted that Tennessee would need to create some cap space to accommodate Ertz’ contract, especially now that they will be adding Julio’s contract to their roster. Is the Jones trade just the first domino to fall that could see the Colts forced to now make a run at Zach Ertz?
However the situation resolves itself, the Ertz storyline will be one for fantasy managers to closely follow as the offseason rolls on. Zach Ertz has a couple of potential landing spots where his talents can be utilized to the benefit of fantasy squads, vaulting him into a reliable weekly option at one of the game’s most frustrating positions. In the end, will it be the Colts or the Titans?
Thank you for reading my article. Do you agree or disagree with my analysis of Zach Ertz and his future? Please leave a comment or message me @df_patterson
Editor: Joe Simonetti (@joesimonetti77)
Graphic work: Dan Made Graphics (@DanMadeGraphics)