NFLTR Review: Finding A New Home For Zach Ertz

     

Happy Friday and welcome to another week of NFLTR Review! Things have slowed down as the NFL prepares for the draft but we’ve still got loads for you, including:

  • Potential trade destinations for TE Zach Ertz
  • Five reasons the Panthers’ trade for Sam Darnold looks ill-advised
  • Roundup of all this week’s action

Around The Trade Block: Zach Ertz

It can be easy to forget with some of the other big moves going down in the NFL the past two weeks. But Eagles TE Zach Ertz is still hanging out there on the trade block collecting dust like he has been since Philadelphia’s season ended. 

There’s no indication that an Ertz trade is imminent. His agent received permission to pursue a trade weeks ago but there’s been little movement or buzz. The Eagles have made it quite clear that they’re willing to hold on to Ertz for a long time if a team isn’t willing to meet their asking price — supposedly a third or fourth-round pick. 

Beyond the Eagles’ asking price, the biggest hurdle to an Ertz trade is that he’s due an $8.5 million base salary in 2021, which is a hefty amount given the downward pressure on this year’s salary cap from the pandemic. He’s also coming off his worst season as a pro and turns 31 in November. Tight ends often are successful into their 30s and Ertz dealt with injuries last season but neither of those help the Eagles’ leverage. 

There are no real deadlines for a deal; the Eagles are under the cap and the bulk of free agency is over, so the pressure for cap savings is low. The draft is a logical inflection point but the Eagles are building long-term and have already shown a willingness to accept 2022 picks. 

What we can say with some confidence though is that neither Ertz nor the Eagles expect him to play in Philadelphia this season, which means at some point either another team will meet the team’s asking price, the Eagles will take what they can for Ertz or he will be released. 

As for potential suitors, the Colts and Seahawks were two teams mentioned specifically earlier this offseason. Seattle has since gone elsewhere at the position. The Bills and Chargers were also linked to Ertz but balked at Philadelphia’s asking price and pivoted to Jacob Hollister and Jared Cook respectively. 

That’s thinned the market some but there are still around a half dozen teams who a trade for Ertz would make some sense for, if not before the draft, then before the start of the 2021 season. Here they are, ranked by available cap space: 

Jaguars

The current top options on Jacksonville’s depth chart at tight end are James O’Shaughnessy and new blocking specialist Chris Manhertz. Getting a more viable receiving option is a major need. Tight ends are a young quarterback’s best friend, but right now future Jaguars’ QB Trevor Lawrence would be sitting at the lunch table by himself waiting for a receiving pal to show up. 

Jacksonville could draft someone at the end of the month to grow long-term with Lawrence as the team rebuilds, but there’s also potentially some benefit to adding a wily veteran who can help the rookie passer as he transitions to the NFL. Jaguars HC Urban Meyer also doesn’t have his sights set on a long rebuild, he’ll be ready to win ASAP and might be willing to toss one of Jacksonville’s many picks to the Eagles for Ertz. 

Cap space isn’t an issue, the Jaguars will still have close to $30 million even after signing their rookies. Philadelphia would likely love the No. 65 pick at the top of the third round and could pitch Jacksonville on some kind of a swap to move up. But the Jaguars also have two fourths and two fifths this year to work with. 

Colts

Ertz makes sense for the Colts in a lot of the same ways that Carson Wentz did. He has deep connections to the coaching staff as Colts HC Frank Reich was calling plays for the Eagles when Ertz’s career started to take off. A bunch of people thought Ertz might even be included in the deal with Wentz to Indianapolis. 

The fact that he wasn’t probably indicates Colts GM Chris Ballard wasn’t comfortable with the asking price. He treats draft picks like gold and already surrendered a probable first-round pick for Wentz in 2022. A third for Ertz would have been steep. 

While Indianapolis has plenty of cap space to absorb Ertz’s deal this year, they have some big extensions coming down the pike for guys like LB Darius Leonard and G Quenton Nelson. Part of the reason Ertz’s tenure is coming to a close in Philadelphia is that he wanted a new deal near the top of the tight end market, so if the Colts don’t see him as a potential long-term piece, that could also explain why they balked. 

There are too many reasons Ertz makes sense for the Colts, though. He and Wentz had a terrific rapport up until this past year when the entire offense was broken. Reich also loves tight ends and has talked about a desire to upgrade the position this offseason. As the Colts finetune their roster into what they hope is a Super Bowl contender, adding a weapon like Ertz could be one of the things that helps push them over the top. 

49ers

I know what you’re thinking. Why on earth would the 49ers trade for Ertz when they already have George Kittle? I’ll admit this is among the more unlikely trade destinations. San Francisco just surrendered a haul of draft picks to move up to No. 3 overall, paying more for an aging tight end seems a little counter-intuitive. 

However, there are reasons you shouldn’t dismiss the 49ers as a dark horse contender. 49ers HC Kyle Shanahan has been searching for more than just depth or a blocking specialist in the No. 2 spot on the depth chart for some time. They signed Jordan Reed last August well before Kittle went down. Ertz would be expensive for a No. 2 tight end, but Shanahan clearly has a vision for what he can do with two receiving threats at the position. 

From a cap perspective, the 49ers should still have $11 million to work with after the draft, so while it would be tight they could add void years to manage a year of Ertz. San Francisco envisions itself a Super Bowl contender this year, and a move like this wouldn’t be too different from what they did to get WR Emmanuel Sanders for half a season in 2019. 

For Ertz, coming back to California could be appealing, as he went to school at Stanford just minutes away from the 49ers’ team facility. 49ers QB coach Rich Scangarello was also with the Eagles last year and could give them some personal insight into whether Ertz’s 2020 was an aberration or the beginning of the end. I wouldn’t call the 49ers the leaders to get Ertz. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they ended up with him when it’s all over. 

Panthers

One of the takeaways I had from the Panthers’ decision to trade for Sam Darnold — and there were many, many that I’ll get into later in this column — is that it signaled a move away from a more patient timeline. Carolina wants to win sooner rather than later. Otherwise, why not be more patient and calculating while exploring options, like a rookie quarterback, instead of overextending to ensure Teddy Bridgewater was not the starter again in 2021?  

Moves like aggressively targeting second or third-wave offensive linemen in the first hours of free agency and adding a nearly 30-year-old cornerback this week show the Panthers care about competing in 2021. So while a veteran like Ertz might not usually fit the goals of a rebuilding team, that might not matter to the Panthers as much as filling their huge hole at tight end and providing the best possible environment to prove they didn’t make a mistake with Darnold. 

Cardinals

Few teams have gone as all-in this offseason as the Cardinals, as they’ve aggressively pursued veterans to try and build the best team around QB Kyler Murray that they can while he’s still on his rookie deal. Age hasn’t deterred Arizona, as they’ve gone after J.J. Watt (32), A.J. Green (32) and Malcolm Butler (31). It probably wouldn’t scare them off Ertz and they have a big need at tight end. 

Cardinals HC Kliff Kingsbury has shown more of a willingness to use tight ends in the NFL than many thought he would as an Air Raid coach in college. But he’s been handicapped by a general lack of talent at the position. Maxx Williams is a decent No. 2 and Dan Arnold was their top receiving threat before signing with Carolina last month but neither really strike fear in the hearts of defensive coordinators. 

Ertz would change that if he comes back healthy. He’s still a potential mismatch over the middle of the field and the red zone and would present another big target for Murray who has shown a tendency to miss high in his first two seasons. Keeping up in the NFC West is like a nuclear arms race. Ertz could help ensure Arizona doesn’t fall behind. 

Ravens

The ideal situation for the Eagles would have been trading Ertz at the deadline last year when it was pretty clear 2020 was a lost season. However, he got hurt and that scuttled any chances. One of the teams who did show some interest in 2020 was the Ravens, as they use tight ends more often than any other team and were missing Hayden Hurst

Baltimore would likely still love to add Ertz to the team in a vacuum. Lamar Jackson is at his best throwing to tight ends over the middle of the field and adding another big target along with Mark Andrews could help cure the passing game of what ills it. 

The cap presents a sizable obstacle, though. The Ravens will have only around $10 million of space after signing their draft picks and Ertz’s contract would obviously eat up a sizable portion of that. Baltimore is also zealous about draft picks so the combination of those two costs might be too rich. Still, the need is there even if the Ravens would have to get creative with void years to be able to make it happen. 

Bills

The Bills had tight end high on their list this offseason as they looked for ways to get over the hump as contenders in the AFC. They were one of the teams that probably inquired with the Eagles about Ertz but were driven away by the asking price. At the moment, they look content to go into 2021 with a combination of Hollister and Dawson Knox

Still, neither of those players would stop Buffalo from adding Ertz if the price came down. The biggest issue is how low it would have to drop, as the biggest issue remains Ertz’s contract. They’re pressed up against the cap right now and while extensions for WR Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley could create more space, there’s a mega-deal coming down the pipe for QB Josh Allen that they have to prepare for. 

Bills GM Brandon Beane might be enticed if the Eagles were willing to eat most of Ertz’s salary. Perhaps that would get him to surrender a fifth-round pick or even a fourth. There are other suitors for Ertz who make more sense than the Bills, though. 

This Week In Football

  • The quarterback dominoes continue to fall this offseason. Boxed out of a trade up in the draft and with Texans QB Deshaun Watson’s legal situation, which saw the police get involved for the first time, putting that drama on hold, the Panthers executed Plan D and traded for Jets QB Sam Darnold. There was no discount, as Jets GM Joe Douglas is proving to be a master of extracting maximum trade value from New York’s failed picks. Carolina gave up a sixth this year and a second and fourth in 2022. 
  • The Panthers also made it quite clear they’re looking to turn the page to Darnold as a potential starter. Carolina exercised his fifth-year option and gave former starting QB Teddy Bridgewater permission to seek a trade. He’s due $10 million guaranteed in 2021 either way, so the Panthers don’t have leverage to reduce his pay beyond that. But they do appear to have some semblance of a market for Bridgewater as a backup. 
  • If the 49ers’ asking price is any indication, Jimmy Garoppolo is here to stay in 2021. San Francisco is reportedly wanting a first-round pick to give up Garoppolo. It’s hard to see any team giving that up, even the Patriots. Rounding out the veteran quarterback news, the Bears publicly affirmed what QB Andy Dalton says they’ve told him behind the scenes: he’s the QB1 in Chicago for 2021
  • Three weeks from now, the first round will be in the books and the decision the Falcons make with the No. 4 pick will be the inflection point of the draft. Quarterbacks are locked into the first three picks and Atlanta could go that way with the fourth. But the Falcons also appear to be mulling a trade down, which could help them address a number of needs and fill out their roster. Whichever way they go is going to have massive ripple effects on the rest of the draft. 
  • Free agency is mostly done, but there were a few notable signings. Carolina finished off an active week by signing veteran CB A.J. Bouye, who immediately should start for a needy secondary. The Lions also got a potential steal in the secondary with a one-year deal for CB Quinton Dunbar, PFF’s No. 2-rated corner in 2019. The Eagles also added a pair of potential key contributors, signing LB Eric Wilson to bolster one of the weakest units on the team and bringing back RB Jordan Howard to serve as a complementary back. 
  • There’s still plenty of good options available in free agency but there probably won’t be a ton of movement until after the draft. Former 49ers CB Richard Sherman is a good example, as he’s representing himself as his own agent and says his expectation isn’t to land with a team until May at the earliest. For one, teams’ needs could change based on the results of the draft. Teams will also wait out the market because of the compensatory pick formula. 
  • The Bengals created a bit of a stir by abruptly releasing RB Giovani Bernard. Financially, the move made sense. It cleared more than $4 million for a backup running back. But it also meant saying goodbye to a tenured veteran and respected team leader, and apparently the team tried to force him into a pay cut which led to the release. Bernard should be able to find a new team in due time. 
  • To wrap things up, Vikings 2020 first-round CB Jeff Gladney was arrested on a third-degree felony charge after a domestic violence incident. It’s a serious situation, Gladney faces real jail time if convicted. It obviously has major implications for his status with Minnesota.

Five Fails From Carolina’s Sam Darnold Trade

There are a lot of reasons I’m optimistic about Matt Rhule the head coach. He’s a good teacher, he fits the CEO archetype more than the scheme wiz, which I believe indicates more potential staying power, and in his first year in 2020 he led a team that was competitive despite clearly being at a talent disadvantage. 

Matt Rhule the general manager, though, might sabotage any chance the former has of success. 

Make no mistake, Rhule is calling the shots in Carolina. David Tepper has a voice, perhaps a strong one. We’re still learning to what extent he uses it as he enters his fourth year owning the team. New GM Scott Fitterer came from an organization where the coach calls the shots and that wasn’t a coincidence. The team will say it makes decisions collaboratively and to some extent that’s probably true. It’s also in their interest to provide a buffer between Rhule the coach and any heat he might catch from his personnel decisions. 

It’s telling, though, that it was reported how smitten Rhule was with Darnold when he interviewed for the Jets’ job in 2019. Fitterer spoke glowingly of how he evaluated Darnold in 2018 as well and obviously Tepper, who made no bones about his high regard for Watson behind the scenes before sexual assault allegations emerged, had to sign off on this move. Rhule was the engine for this move and for how the Panthers have handled — arguably mishandled — the quarterback position the past year or so. 

A second-round pick was far above what the market for Darnold was

A bunch of teams inquired about Darnold this offseason. Some reports have the number as high as eight. The Jets didn’t decide they felt comfortable enough with Zach Wilson to pull the trigger on a trade until sometime in the past few weeks, possibly after Wilson’s pro day. By that time, it appears the Panthers were the only teams who were seriously interested. 

That makes sense. The 49ers moved up to No. 3, boxing out Carolina from a move into the top five. The Bears and Washington signed veterans. The Broncos have been generally higher on incumbent Drew Lock than most outsiders and have yet to bring in another quarterback. Other teams appeared to view Darnold more as a reclamation project than a starter and that was reflected in the trade market, which appeared to be dipping. 

Still, the Panthers ponied up the second-round pick Douglas was after even though the Jets had little to no leverage. While a report linked the Broncos as having interest in Darnold, it came way after the other reports and didn’t pass my sniff test. The Jets tried to sell that they were seriously considering keeping Darnold along with the quarterback they drafted No. 2, but you don’t have to think about that very long to see how untenable that would be. Douglas said as much in his presser after the trade. 

Executing the fifth-year option is a commitment Carolina was probably alone in being willing to make

The natural question is why the Panthers didn’t try to wait the Jets out to see if the price dropped during or after the draft? Why the rush? 

To me, that indicates they were afraid of losing out on a potential franchise starter. Their decision to immediately execute Darnold’s fifth-year option backs that up, showing they’re much more optimistic about Darnold than the rest of the league is. The deadline for the option is May 3, two days after the draft ends. The Panthers might have seen that as a deadline to get a deal done for Darnold, as the Jets weren’t going to pick it up. 

If that’s their rationale, here’s why it’s risky. Unlike past years, the fifth-year option is fully guaranteed upon being executed starting with this year’s draft class, meaning Carolina is committing $18.9 million to Darnold in 2022, even if he flops this year. For as much as the Panthers are trying to pitch they could still take a quarterback, it’s obvious that’s not a minor investment and that they view Darnold as their guy for at least the next two seasons unless he forces their hand otherwise. 

That’s why so many people thought the Jets would have such a hard time trading Darnold, and why New York was willing to move on despite making such a big investment in 2018. They recognized he wasn’t in the best environment to succeed in the past few seasons but Darnold himself also showed very little. It was cleaner and less risky to dump Darnold and reset the clock with a rookie contract at the position rather than bank on him reversing course. 

That’s the bet the Panthers are now making, and statistically, it’s not a good one. The vast majority of quarterbacks who start their career as poorly as Darnold has do not go on to be franchise quarterbacks. In fact, Darnold could even improve exponentially and still only be mediocre at best. That’s how low the bar is for him right now. 

Opportunity cost from not pursuing a rookie

Relative to what it costs for a starting quarterback these days, a second-round pick and about $23 million are not ridiculously expensive. If this move flops, it’s not going to set the Panthers back more than if the 49ers’ trade for No. 3 doesn’t pan out. 

However, what makes this move for the Panthers particularly hard to stomach is the opportunity cost of passing on one of the rookie quarterbacks in this class. Not all of the prospects being hyped right now will hit but it’s clear this is an uncommonly talented quarterback class. 

Instead, Carolina has preemptively taken itself out of the mix with this trade. Reporters covering the team say it’s partially because they didn’t think any quarterbacks would fall to the eighth pick. But even if they went 1-2-3-4 off the board, that leaves a fifth potentially available with a small trade up or even at No. 8. That’s still potentially either North Dakota State’s Trey Lance or Ohio State’s Justin Fields if the 49ers take Alabama’s Mac Jones at No. 3 as so many people expect. Even if the 49ers don’t take Jones, he might have some unexpected promise if he’s being seriously regarded as a top-five pick. 

What the Panthers really said by not waiting for the draft to play out is that they viewed paying a second-round pick and $23 million over two years for Darnold as a far better alternative than any of the three quarterbacks possibly available to them — Fields, Lance and Jones. We haven’t seen any of them at the NFL level, but we have seen three years of Darnold. And based on that, that’s a hard pill to swallow for Panthers fans. 

Their quarterback decisions to this point have not inspired confidence

The Athletic’s Joe Person hit at this in a column this week, but at this point the Panthers have a clear pattern of spinning their wheels at quarterback. They made the decision to move on from Cam Newton and start completely clean with a new regime, even if it meant cutting one of the greatest players in franchise history. They targeted Bridgewater as the hand-picked replacement, investing even more in him than they were scheduled to spend on Newton. 

Frankly, there wasn’t much difference between how effective Bridgewater and Newton were last year. Both accounted for 20 total touchdowns, Bridgewater did most of his damage through the air while Newton was better on the ground. But while Newton’s skill-position talent was a black hole, Bridgewater managed to go 0-8 in potential game-winning or tying situations with three receivers who all topped 1,000 total yards. 

Entering this offseason, the Panthers weren’t shy about expressing their desire to upgrade from Bridgewater’s game manager skill set — which wasn’t much different than his career to that point and shouldn’t have been a surprise. Part of how they sold the move the year before is that Bridgewater’s three-year contract wouldn’t prevent them from drafting a rookie. Yet they forego this sparkly class to trade for Darnold, a quarterback who might be worse than Bridgewater? 

The Panthers hinted at being big, bold and fearless to get their quarterback this year, with a blockbuster deal for Watson or an aggressive move up in the draft. Instead, they struck out on Matthew Stafford, lost Watson as an option and either got surprised or weren’t willing to trade up to No. 3. Now the next apple of their eye is Darnold, and people can already see the worms poking out of this one. 

If this doesn’t work out, Carolina may as well have set the next two years on fire

The best-case scenario here is Darnold thrives once removed from the shadow of Adam Gase like so many others have before him, rediscovers the potential that made him a top prospect in 2018 and shakes off the bad habits to make genuine strides in his development that’s stalled to this point. 

That can’t be called likely, though. There are a wide range of outcomes but most end up with the Panthers burning two years or more with this investment and putting them three years into Rhule’s six-year deal with little progress to show for it. Perhaps Darnold looks as bad in 2021 as he did with the Jets and Carolina loses patience, eating what they have to to get rid of him. Perhaps he improves enough to get OC Joe Brady a head coaching job but then regresses in 2022 again, leaving Carolina back at square one. 

Or maybe he genuinely does improve, but only to the point of a Ryan Fitzpatrick or Andy Dalton. Never good enough to take you to the next level but good enough to win games to keep you out of range of drafting a replacement. 

All that’s left to do is sit back, watch and see how Rhule feels about Darnold in a year. 

Nickels & Dimes

Quick-hit thoughts and observations from around the NFL…

I’m not sure a 17-game season is necessarily going to annihilate the NFL record books like some people are worried about. Playing a full 16-game season is rare. There are injuries and even players on great teams who sit out the final week. It stands to reason the number of players who go a full 17 games will be even fewer, especially if this pushes coaches to embrace more load management strategies…

I may be old school, but I’m not even a fan of receivers having digits in the teens. So this anything goes number change rule is not sitting well with me…

Random nugget: Gardner Minshew had the 12th-best season of all time in terms of total fantasy points at the end of the year for a rookie quarterback. Take that for what you will…

This is what Carolina should do. They won’t, though…

As an aside, Steven basically wrote the column I wanted to vent about this trade, so I had to go in a different direction. But it’s a good piece. Be kind to the Panthers fans in your life…

The memes from this trade have been the best part of it…

By far…

OMG…

This is staggering. So are we going to be talking about replacing Zach Wilson in a year…?

So far this offseason, the Chiefs have swung and missed for LT Trent Williams, WR J.J. Smith-Schuster, WR Josh Reynolds and other receivers to varying degrees like Curtis Samuel, Corey Davis and A.J. Green. Melvin Ingram also visited but left without a deal. It hasn’t been a money issue clearly, which makes it even stranger that team quarterbacked by Patrick Mahomes coming off back-to-back Super Bowl appearances can’t close the deal…

Josh Allen is good at a lot of things. He should probably leave contract talks to his agent though after this staggering misread of the quarterback market: “Again, I need to do more research on it, but if you look at the guys that’ve been tags in the past couple years, as far as the quarterback position goes, it was Dak, and Kirk Cousins. And at the end of the day, you could make the case that they should’ve just done the deal the year prior, or a couple years prior….”

Cousins signed one of the largest, fully-guaranteed deals in NFL history. He’s made $94 million the past three seasons and will have made $150 million by 2022. Prescott turned down a deal worth less than $34 million a year and just signed one worth $40 million a year with a chance to cash in again in a few years…

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