Stanford tight end Zach Ertz declared for the draft this week. If someone could only see one play that would matter in deciding his draft day fate, which play would I use to highlight that prospect’s skills ? Will this highlight boil down this prospect to his essentials? That’s the thinking behind The Boiler Room - analysis of what makes a player worth drafting by boiling down as much as I can into a single play.
One of the challenges involved with player analysis is to be succinct with delivering the goods. As the author of an annual tome, I’m often a spectacular failure in this respect. Even so, I will study a prospect and see a play unfold that does a great job of encapsulating that player’s skills. When I witness these moments, I try to imagine if I would include this play as part of a cut-up of highlights for a draft show at a major network or if I was working for an NFL organization creating cut-ups for a personnel director.
Unlike the No-Huddle Series, The Boiler Room is focused on prospects I expect to be drafted, and often before the fourth round. Today’s prospect is another Stanford player, Zach Ertz. The 6-6, 252-pound tight end is near the top of a class loaded with several strong prospects at the position. What makes Ertz an NFL prospect is his fluid athleticism in an in-line tight end’s body.
This 2nd-and-10 game-winning score with 10:30 left against USC is a highlight you’ll see this spring when an NFL team calls his Ertz’s name at the NFL Draft.
This is a 21 personnel, I-formation, 1×1 receiver set. Ertz is the single receiver to the strong side facing a cornerback playing single coverage at the line of scrimmage. If you count the number of defenders in this photo, you’ll see that there is only one safety deep and in the middle of the field. This alignment confirms that Ertz has drawn man coverage. The defender is 6-1, 190-pound corner Torin Harris. Physically, this is a mismatch – especially on routes where Ertz can use his frame to shield the defender from the ball.
The easiest of these routes for Ertz to use his size would be options where he can post-up (fades) or break back to the quarterback (hooks, curls, quick slants, or outs). Where it seems less likely for Ertz to win against Harris, or any top-profile college program cornerback is a deeper route that requires a good story in order to gain separation. This is exactly what Ertz does with this corner-post for a 37-yard touchdown.
The play begins with Harris beginning his back-pedal after the snap with his back to the sideline and spying the pocket.
The Trojans’ corner doesn’t try to jam Ertz because of the tight end’s size presents an advantage early in the route. Harris opts to stare into the offensive backfield and utilize his quickness to break on the football. The corner has his back to the sideline during this release down field because he hopes to funnel the play inside where he can get help from his teammates – especially if this is a short slant. Shortly after crossing the line of scrimmage, Ertz bends the route inside and looks inside as if he’s about to break on the slant.
As soon as Harris reacts to Ertz’s inside move, the tight end plants and dips outside as if he’s heading for the corner. Route running is a lot like telling a suspenseful story: it’s best to be two steps ahead of the audience. Defenders are a lot like an audience. Most members of the audience anticipate the first move or change in the plot of a story. Not as many anticipate the second twist in the plot line so most of them react as if this is the true path of the story. It is this reaction where they tend to make the strongest commitment to compensate for anticipating the first move, but not the second.
To generate this reaction the route runner must display a strong attention to detail, precision with his footwork, and the quickness and agility to execute with enough fluidity to manipulate the defender. Ertz demonstrates each of these facets of route running on this play, drawing Harris out of position, and forcing the corner to react in the moment.
Ertz’s break to the outside forces Harris to react by turning outside and continuing his back pedal. If it wasn’t clear from the beginning of the route that the corner was playing the ball and not the man, this still reinforces it. Harris continues to the pocket while reacting to Ertz’s second break. Meanwhile, Ertz is setting up his third move, a break to the post while Harris continues to react to the potential corner route. The fact that Ertz’s position is behind and shaded to the corner’s outside shoulder keeps the tight end just out of Harris’ peripheral vision. Despite the fact that Ertz is not within site of the corner at this moment, he still sells the outside break with his head.
This detail is important because he doesn’t know what the exactly position or sight line the corner will have before he executes the route and failing to sell even the slightest detail can tip off a defender. Further, there is always the chance that the safety doesn’t buy what Ertz is selling and works to the middle of the field early enough to foil the play.
By the time Ertz breaks inside, Harris has committed enough to the post route that it will require a bad throw for the corner to recover and defend the pass. The direction of the knees and hips tell the story. In this case, Harris falls for the bait and the result is Ertz gaining at least three steps of separation.
If you outlined Harris and pasted that outline in this space between him and Ertz, there would be enough room for three outlines. Ertz turns towards the throw and gets his head around and his hands up. A route with this detail of movement to set up the break requires the receiver to make a late adjustment to track the football on a pass that should be arriving with some heat.
Everything about Ertz’s form at this point is perfect: His back is to the defender thanks to his work to set up the break; his arms are extended to the first available point to catch the pass; and his hands are in position to make the catch with his palms facing the ball and his fingers up and splayed inward. When you see a receiver catch the ball close to his body in this situation it’s often because he lacks confidence in his ability to catch the ball with his hands or he doesn’t have mastery of knowing the correct hand position to use to attack a ball that is between belt and chest level. This pass is a little higher than that, but still in an area where I see receivers have difficulty with the position of their hands.
Within a step of catching the ball, Ertz does a good job of securing the pass and looking to the safety approaching from the inside. The plant and dip under the defender is another demonstration of quick thinking and agility.
As Ertz finishes planting the outside foot and turning his hips inside, he also lowers his pads in anticipation of contact and has both hands on the football. These are all good reactions. The only thing Ertz doesn’t do is get the ball closer to his body in anticipation of a hit. Fortunately for the Stanford tight end, his move is good enough to avoid the safety and get the ball tucked firmly into his inside arm as he breaks from the outside pursuit.
The to the middle of the field not only helps him avoid the safety, but it also puts Ertz’s teammate in position to block Harris. All that is left between Ertz and the end zone is the pursuit behind him.
Remember that Ertz just executed a sharp change of direction that would slow the gait of any player. As No.16 closes on Ertz, I like how the tight end demonstrates the awareness to dive for the goal line. It illustrates that Ertz saw the backside pursuit as he made this cut inside the safety and that he has skill at processing what to do as a ball carrier in the open field. Within a few steps he extends the ball towards the end zone, just ahead of the defender attempting to punch the ball loose.
Ertz anticipates the defender, dives for the goal line, and lands in the end zone maintaining control of the football. It’s the culmination of a play that illustrates why a defender better not take this big man for granted. Harris playing the ball over the man did just that and he paid the price.
Ertz is a lot like Bengals receiver Jermaine Gresham, a big, physical, and agile player capable of developing into an NFL starter and intermediate threat with big-play ability. What this play doesn’t show you represents a lot of what he’ll need to improve: using his hands at the line of scrimmage and making receptions after contact from a defender. If he can improve his game, I think he can develop into a performer with Heath Miller’s upside. I still have more to study so don’t take the Miller comparison as anything more than a distant summit of Ertz’s potential. Still, the view from this level is promising.
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