The Eagles' tight end room now belongs to Zach Ertz. There isn't a plaque or anything that would make this official, but Ertz knows it is time for him to take ownership of the group, at age 27, coming off a starring role in the Super Bowl.
Ertz's mentor, Brent Celek, was released this offseason after 11 sturdy seasons. Trey Burton, of "Philly Special" fame, is in Chicago after signing a four-year, $32 million deal in free agency.
The team is expected to draft a tight end, maybe with its first selection April 26 in Dallas, but that player will be no more than Ertz's understudy. The backup the Eagles added in free agency, Richard Rodgers, talked when he signed about how eager he was to learn from Ertz, even though Rodgers turned 26 in January, a little more than two months after Ertz turned 27.
After those two there is 2017 practice-squad tight end Billy Brown, former rugby star Adam Zaruba, and 24-year-old Joshua Perkins, who has played in eight NFL games as an Atlanta Falcon in 2016.
"The room's definitely going to be different. … It's an opportunity for me to kind of move on to the next stage of my career, kind of be the veteran," Ertz said Tuesday, as the Eagles settled into the first phase of their offseason program, which began Monday. "I was listening to Richard Rodgers speak when he was introduced, [saying] 'It's going to be great to finally have a veteran tight end [to learn from].' I was like, 'Dude, I'm a year older than you.' … Richard's a very talented tight end, we're excited about what he can do. We've got three talented tight ends that don't know what they don't know, but they have a lot of potential.
"Obviously, we lost two great people, first and foremost, and two really talented football players. Trey is moving on to something that he's clearly earned, a [tight end] room … where he's the head guy. Brent, obviously, played 11 years here, which is phenomenal. He'll probably go down as the best or second-best tight end to ever play here."
Reporters chuckled at that, wondering if Ertz was ranking himself above Celek, seriously or to be funny. Sensing how his statement was being interpreted, Ertz clarified. Though he had trouble coming up with Hall of Fame tight end Pete Retzlaff's name, he knew Retzlaff ranked No. 1.
Ertz, drafted in 2013's second round, has never stepped onto an NFL field without Celek.
"He didn't treat me as a guy that was a competitor to him, he looked at me as a guy who could help him [lengthen] his career, where he didn't have to take every snap. So it's tough," Ertz said. "That guy has been with me since the beginning and pretty much taught me how to be a pro in Philadelphia.
"Even a couple years back, as the playing time started to increase in my [direction], he let me kind of take on a leadership role, he wasn't overbearing by any means, he kind of let me lead in my own way. Even though he was the leader of the room, per se … he allowed me to slowly earn more of a leadership role in our room, so he kind of set me up for this moment. I owe a lot of my success to Brent. I've said that multiple times."
Celek played a role in Ertz's crucial fourth-down conversion that kept alive the Eagles' drive for the game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl LII.
"Nick [Foles] obviously made a heck of a throw. It was clear man coverage," Ertz recalled. "Brent was able to kind of rub my guy off, and I was probably open a little earlier, but Nick had pressure, he had to sidestep. Then the guy just dove at my legs, and as a receiver, you kind of have to deal with, 'OK, the ball's coming but I know I'm gonna get tackled low.' It's not easy to do, you kind of have to block that in your mind and just focus on the football, and I was able to do that."
Seven plays later, on third-and-7 from the New England 11, Ertz made the catch and dive into the end zone that gave the Eagles the lead for good, though he said Tuesday that at the time, he thought they'd need another TD to seal it.
The touchdown was upheld on review, Ertz having taken several steps before launching himself, then briefly bobbling the ball as he planted it in the end zone. Refinements to the catch rule enacted last month ought to make such controversies less common.
"Obviously it was a clear catch," Ertz said. "Regardless of what everyone said."