When Zach Ertz started having trouble catching passes near the end of the preseason, an unwelcome feeling returned.
One spring during his Stanford tenure, Ertz had become so consumed by a couple of drops that a few weeks went by before he felt right.
“Usually it gets worse before it gets better,” the Eagles’ rookie tight end said, “Luckily for me, the worst has been behind me and I’m ready to move on.”
His most recent funk occurred after coach Chip Kelly closed the majority of his practices to the media following the Aug. 16 preseason game against Carolina.
Up until then, Ertz had looked fairly impressive at camp, steadily climbing up the depth chart and only occasionally letting a good throw slip between his hands.
Ertz on Monday, against the Redskins, took another step forward in limited action. He caught just one pass -- an 11-yarder late in the first half -- but played 24 snaps, the most snaps of any offensive reserve.
He was targeted twice inside the Washington 20-yard line on the Eagles’ second drive, but Mike Vick’s third-down toss went incomplete after it bounced off Ertz’s hands. Redskins corner E.J. Biggers happened to be draped around his neck, but the referees kept their flags concealed.
“[Eagles coaches] kind of thought it was pass interference,” Ertz recalled, “but at the end of the day I still have to catch the ball.”
That he played so many downs and caught just one pass illustrated the rookie’s development as a blocker, the element of his game that needed the most work.
The team didn’t use a high second-round pick on Ertz, making him their highest tight end drafted since Keith Jackson went 13th overall in 1988, for his ability to bulldoze defensive ends and linebackers in pass protection.
Ertz’s 898 receiving yards last year at Stanford led all Division I tight ends.
“Zach progresses every week. He’s getting better and better,” tight end Brent Celek said. “Not only in the run game but in the pass game. The sky’s the limit for that kid. He’s gonna be a good player for a long time, in my opinion.”
Celek recalled Ertz fighting the ball late in camp, but didn’t make too much of the rookie’s dry spell.
“I think that happens with anybody,” he said. “Sometimes that happens with me. You drop a few passes and start to think, ‘I’ve got to get better. I’ve got to fix that.’ Especially when you’re young, it’s amplified because you feel like everyone is watching. He’s got some of the best hands on the team.”
More impressive than Ertz overcoming his funk was his ability to catch up to Kelly’s offense after missing almost all of the spring camps.
Stanford is one of the trimester schools that doesn’t hold its graduation ceremony until late June, and NCAA athletes can’t attend NFL camps except the post-draft one until after their schools commence.
By the time Ertz arrived in July for training camp, he had missed the team’s acclimation to Kelly’s frenetic practices and lost valuable practice snaps in the head coach’s unconventional, no-huddle offense.
“I came into camp with the mindset that I wanted to play,” he said. “I wasn’t gonna let the offseason deter me, as far as my goal of playing and being a significant factor on this team on the offensive side of the ball.
“So I don’t think [missing time] was a hindrance in any way. I was in the playbook as much I could [be] while I was home. But I think being in the first couple of series [against the Redskins], the first series especially, was just a culmination of a lot of hard work.”