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Zach Ertz Is An Elite Breakout Candidate – Is it Enough?

Fantasy football leagues are typically won by owners who are able to identify the players who have the biggest return on investment (ROI). ROI, in the context of fantasy football, can be described as how a player performs in comparison to his draft position.

When a fantasy player is ready to break out, there’s typically more than one indicator of a potential statistical leap. These indicators are crucial to identify if you want to maximize your ROI and gain an advantage over other well-informed drafters.

The fantasy community may have been a year early on Zach Ertz, but this season it could create an opportunity to capitalize. Ertz looks like a potential breakout this season because of his age, opportunity, and average draft position.

Age

Age is one of the most important variables when discussing football players. It gives us a good idea of when players break out, peak, and decline.

To find out when tight ends peak, I looked at the ages of every TE since 1990 who had at least 63 receptions for 700 yards and six touchdowns. According to Pro-Football-Reference, the sample size amounted to 56. Each season is listed on the table below:

RkPlayerYearAgeTmGTgtRecYdsTDY/G
1Rob Gronkowski201122NWE161249013271782.9
2Jimmy Graham201125NOR161499913101181.9
3Tony Gonzalez200428KAN161481021258778.6
4Jimmy Graham201327NOR161428612151675.9
5Tony Gonzalez200024KAN16150931203975.2
6Ben Coates199425NWE16961174773.4
7Antonio Gates200929SDG16114791157872.3
8Jason Witten200725DAL16141961145771.6
9Rob Gronkowski201425NWE151318211241274.9
10Dallas Clark200930IND1613310011061069.1
11Antonio Gates200525SDG151408911011073.4
12Shannon Sharpe199628DEN158010621070.8
13Tony Gonzalez200832KAN161559610581066.1
14Greg Olsen201429CAR16123841008663
15Jason Witten201028DAL16128941002962.6
16Shannon Sharpe199325DEN1681995962.2
17Antonio Gates200727SDG1611775984961.5
18Jimmy Graham201226NOR1513585982965.5
19Jason Witten200422DAL1612287980661.3
20Brent Celek200924PHI1611276971860.7
21Vernon Davis200925SFO16128789651360.3
22Antonio Gates200424SDG15114819641364.3
23Tony Gonzalez201236ATL1612493930858.1
24Antonio Gates200626SDG1612071924957.8
25Jordan Cameron201325CLE1511880917761.1
26Tony Gonzalez200125KAN1611873917657.3
27Martellus Bennett201427CHI1612890916657.3
28Tony Gonzalez200327KAN16106719161057.3
29Ben Coates199526NWE1684915657.2
30Aaron Hernandez201122NWE1411379910765
31Jeremy Shockey200525NYG1512165891759.4
32Jimmy Graham201428NOR16125858891055.6
33David Boston200325SDG1411570880762.9
34Tony Gonzalez201135ATL1611680875754.7
35Tony Gonzalez200933ATL1613483867654.2
36Tony Gonzalez201337ATL1612183859853.7
37Todd Heap200525BAL1611475855753.4
38Jason Witten201331DAL1611173851853.2
39Tony Gonzalez199923KAN15104768491156.6
40Dallas Clark200829IND1510777848656.5
41Todd Heap200222BAL1612268836652.3
42Wesley Walls199933CAR16108638221251.4
43Antonio Gates201434SDG1698698211251.3
44Heath Miller201230PIT1510171816854.4
45Greg Olsen201328CAR1611173816651
46Vernon Davis201127SFO169567792649.5
47Heath Miller200927PIT169876789649.3
48Julius Thomas201325DEN1490657881256.3
49Chris Cooley200725WAS1611066786849.1
50Antonio Gates201131SDG138864778759.8
51Tony Gonzalez200226KAN169963773748.3
52Shannon Sharpe199830DEN16107647681048
53Todd Heap200626BAL1611673765647.8
54Charles Clay201324MIA1610269759647.4
55Jason Witten200523DAL168966757647.3
56Ben Coates199728NWE1666737846.1

This is a distribution graph of the ages:

Screen Shot 2015-05-27 at 9.45.10 AM

While the average age is 27.1 yards old, the peak year appears to be 25. An astonishing 25 percent of the seasons happened at age 25.

Zach Ertz turns 25 this season.

Opportunity

Arguably no offense in the NFL combines the high scoring potential and need for pass-catchers as well as the Eagles do. Between the departures of Jeremy Maclin and LeSean McCoy, the Eagles have 180 targets to replace. This assumes that Pro Football Focus’ least valuable receiver of 2014 Riley Cooper is targeted another 95 times.

Ertz’s problem last year was he only played 50.3 percent of the Eagles’ offensive snaps – which many attribute to his blocking. Ertz spent two weeks this offseason working with former Cowboys OL coach Hudson Houck on his blocking. Coach Chip Kelly said he believes Ertz is capable of making a “big jump” in 2015. With targets up for grabs and a low snap percentage last season, Ertz certainly has room to grow.

Ertz was also Nick Foles’ most effective target:

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 4.25.02 PM

Average Draft Position

For a player who has this many indicators pointing in a favorable direction, you would expect to be forced to pay a hefty price. According to Fantasy Football Calculator, Ertz is being selected, on average, with the seventh pick of the 10th round. That puts him as TE11 behind Owen Daniels, Antonio Gates, and Dwayne Allen.

By season’s end it is entirely possible that he outscores those players – and he’s coming at cheaper price.

In MFL10s, where the crowd is a little more astute, Ertz is currently being drafted as the seventh TE off the board. He looks fairly valued but with a small boost in targets, he has room to beat that and deliver excess value.

I took a close look at Ertz and the Eagles offense using the Projection Machine. After seeing 11.2 percent of the Eagles’ targets as a rookie, Ertz received 14 percent last season. Seeing as the Eagles have a plethora of targets to replace and Ertz is entering his peak, it’s fair to expect another jump.

For those familiar with the Projection Machine, I put Ertz’s catch rate and yards per target at his career averages of 66.2 percent and 8.25, respectively. I gave Ertz a bump to 6.7 percent for his touchdown rate for two reasons: his TE similarity scores expect a bump in N+1 season and the Eagles’ lack of proven red zone weapons.

Target %TargetsRecsRecYdsRec TDsFPsRnk14
0.1587.6858.05723.385.87165.639
0.1693.5361.92777.616.27176.677
0.1799.3765.79819.836.66187.726

It appears that his MFL ADP takes into account his potential breakout and expects a small target jump. To finish as TE7 in terms of TE points from 2014, Ertz will need to see roughly 16 percent of the Eagles’ targets. To deliver excess value Ertz will likely need to see around 17 percent of the Eagles’ targets.

Conclusion

Ertz has many indicators pointing to a potential breakout, although some of that is already priced into his ADP. He looks close to fair value at this point but is one of the TEs who could take a statistical leap based on his age and opportunity.

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