In Philadelphia Eagles history, the spirit of some players has lived on long after they've retired from the game of football. Their memories are conjured during boisterous conversations in the parking lots outside Lincoln Financial Field on fall Sundays, their names are emblazoned on the backs of jerseys sported throughout the stands, and their numbers are displayed on banners hung from atop the stadium.
Zach Ertz hopes one day to join that group of players.
On Monday, the 25-year-old tight end was signed to a five-year contract extension that will keep him in Philadelphia through the 2021 season. Ertz could have delayed his decision and entered the fourth and final year of his rookie deal with the goal of pumping up his value and testing the free agent market in 2017. But for the Stanford alum, the potential for a slightly larger payday was far less important than guaranteeing himself a future with the only team he's known as a pro, the Eagles.
"I wanted to be in Philadelphia. And whatever price that took, that's what I wanted to do," he said during a press conference on Monday. "I want to be here for a long time, I want to be here for my entire career. ... Kobe Bryant and Jason Witten are two of the athletes I've looked up to since I was a young kid. And those two guys stayed in their cities throughout their entire careers.
"When people think of great tight ends in Philly, I want to be the guy that they think of."
Selected with the third pick in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft, Ertz has since become one of the most promising young tight ends in the game today. In 31 games over the past two seasons (11 starts), the 6-5 pass-catcher has notched 133 receptions for 1,555 yards, marks that rank eighth and sixth, respectively, amongst players at his positions during that stretch. His 75 catches and 853 yards this past season were the third and seventh most by an Eagles tight end in franchise history, and he did that despite being hampered early in the year by a core muscle injury that required surgery and missing a game later in the year because of a concussion.
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"If I'm being honest, it hurt (my production), especially the first four games of the year," Ertz told reporters. "I think as the season progressed, I was back to my old self, and (the coaches) trusted me to go out there an execute."
Indeed, more than half of his yards and nearly half his receptions came over the final four weeks of the season, with Ertz catching 35 passes for 450 yards during that span. Those marks led all tight ends in the NFL and fell short only of perennial Pro Bowl wide receivers Antonio Brown and Julio Jones. In the final two weeks of the season, he caught a league-high 22 balls for 274 yards, second only to Jones' 327.
Some of that success can be attributed to the play of quarterback Sam Bradford, who completed 68.2 percent of his passes and averaged 327.0 passing yards per game over the final quarter of the season en route to a 92.4 passer rating. The 28-year-old signal-caller is a free agent himself, and with a new head coach in Doug Pederson and a new offensive coordinator in Frank Reich there remains some uncertainty about what the future holds for Philadelphia at the quarterback position. Ertz has placed his faith in the hands of the key decision-makers within the front office, including Pederson, with whom the young tight end has spoken only briefly but who has earned his respect because of his success with the Chiefs.
"He's a former quarterback, so I'm hoping he likes to throw the ball," Ertz said of his new head coach, chuckling as he spoke. "I'm extremely excited to be in his offense. I think the things that he and (Chiefs head coach Andy) Reid have done in the past with tight ends is something that I'm really looking forward to."
One of the tight ends Ertz is likely referring to is Kansas City's Travis Kelce, brother of Eagles center Jason Kelce and another rising talent at the position in today's game. In 2015, the 26-year-old Kelce finished three receptions shy of Ertz but finished with 22 more yards and three more scoring plays, ending the year with 72 catches for 875 yards and five touchdowns. But another player who Pederson's mentor, Andy Reid, helped groom into one of the best in the league was Ertz's teammate, Brent Celek.
Celek, whom Ertz credits with much of his own success, ranks second all time amongst Eagles tight ends in career receptions (371), third in career receiving yards (4,713) and third in career touchdowns (30). Much of that production came during the six seasons Celek spent with Reid as his head coach and the four years alongside Pederson, who served as an offensive quality control coach and later the team's quarterbacks coach under Reid. The veteran tight end is a player whose work ethic and professionalism Ertz has attempted to emulate during his three seasons alongside him in Philadelphia.
"Brent Celek has been unbelievable, and I owe a lot of this deal to him because of the player I'm able to emulate each and every day during practice," he said. "The way he approaches the game, both on and off the floor, is something I never take for granted.
"I'm never going to be satisfied with where I am as a player. I guarantee Jason Witten isn't satisfied, and he's going to go down as arguably the best tight end to play the game. So I'm going to always work through the next 10 years, hopefully of my career, and I'm really excited for it."
But more than personal achievement, Ertz is concerned about team success first and foremost. He feels encouraged by the way he was able to finish the year strongly in this past season, but he's also disgusted by the fact that the Eagles weren't able to win the games they needed to win to earn a playoff berth. He knows that the former Eagles whose circle of excellence he hopes to one day enter – Brian Dawkins, Donovan McNabb and the like – got to their prestigious level by contributing greatly during one of the richest periods in franchise history. A new era of football in Philadelphia begins next season, and Zach Ertz hopes that with it will come contention for the sport's grandest honor, a Super Bowl victory.
"We haven't brought a Super Bowl home to Philadelphia yet," Ertz lamented. "But I'm not (going to) rest until we do and win as many as we possibly can."