With the 2012 NFL season in the books, and the scouting combine in the rear-view, it's time to take a closer look at the 50 players we think will be the biggest difference-makers at the next level from this draft class. To that end, we're happy to continue this year's Shutdown 50 scouting reports (Hint: There may actually be more than 50). You can read last year's group here. The final 50 players were chosen and ranked based on game tape, combine and Pro Day results, overall positional value, and attributes and liabilities on and off the field.
#32: Zach Ertz, TE, Stanford
We continue this year's series with Stanford tight end Zach Ertz. Caught behind Coby Fleener on the Cardinal depth chart in 2010 and 2011, the 6-foot-5, 249-pound Ertz became the team's full-time starter at the position just in time for Andrew Luck's departure. He caught passes from Josh Nunes and Kevin Hogan instead, and led all FBS tight ends with 69 receptions and 898 yards. He added six touchdowns to become one of the most prominent tight ends in the NCAA, just at a time when the NFL expects more from the position than ever.
For Ertz, the primary challenge will be to find a definitive place in the pros with a skill set that hearkens back to the days when tight ends weren't expected to run 4.5 40s at 250 pounds, and sear the seams of a field with dynamic explosiveness.
"Everybody talks about the speed of the game and how it changes from college to the NFL," Ertz said at the scouting combine. "I'm just looking forward to seeing how that translates ... I was used all over the field at Stanford, in-line and in the slot and out wide. That versatility is going to help me at the next level."
Yes, but NFL teams are also looking for specific scheme fits at what has become a hybrid position. Ertz's tape impresses in many ways, but one is left at times wanting just a bit more in certain aspects.
Pros: Experience in a power-based, pro-style offense. Big target who uses surprising short-area agility to get open in space. Good stalk blocker who will get upfield, push people back, and can get open quickly off blocks. Dynamic yards-after-catch runner who frequently forces more than one defender to take him down. Chips well to get outside quickly on fast passes. High-points the ball in traffic and goes after it with his hands -- snatches the ball as opposed to letting it hit his body.
Very aware player who will change his routes to adapt to quarterbacks moving out of the pocket, and comes back out of coverage to save plays. Excellent underneath receiver who will take advantage of zone and off coverage all day. Physical player off the line who will use his arms to strike and separate from tight coverage. Good sideline and boundary receiver; understands foot placement and will use his height to his advantage. Has a good overall understanding of route concepts.
Cons: Ertz doesn't have the kind of straight-line speed or quick-twitch movement required to consistently get and stay open when running out of the flex position or outside. Needs a few steps to get up to full speed; not an explosive player at all. Can get gummed up by safeties and faster linebackers. Not a practiced or effective inline blocker -- he tends to reach and flail and doesn't plant and drive. Runs drifty routes at times and lacks the ability to cut on a dime. Needs to be tougher over the middle and with potential tacklers converging; will occasionally flinch when opponents drop the hammer.
Sometimes lets his eyes get ahead of the catch -- needs to look the ball in all the way before he turns and runs. Slim-legged player who could benefit from about 10 pounds more muscle. Creates separation with physicality as opposed to agility and won't beat defenders deep on a regular basis. Ran in the high 4.6 range at the combine and at his pro day, but doesn't always match that timed speed on the field.
Conclusion: Clearly, when you watch Zach Ertz and project him to an NFL future, you have to understand that he's not one of the new wave of "big receiver" tight ends who stretch defenses from multiple positions. His relatively slow foot speed and limited agility will push him closer to the line in the NFL, where he can use his size and skill in open spaces. That said, his future is not as definite as it may seem.
Right now, Ertz is a bit of a tweener -- he's not quite physical enough to excel as an inline blocker and pure attribute to the run game, and he will never have the pure seam speed you'd see from Aaron Hernandez or Jimmy Graham. Since it's easier to get bigger than it is to get faster, Ertz would do well to bulk up, work on his blocking, and continue to refine the attributes that make him an outstanding high-volume production player. He's not going to hog any highlight films, but Ertz is the kind of player who, in the right offense and with more development in certain areas, will put up 80-100 catches per season -- and make it look easier than it actually is.
The Jason Witten comparisons common to Ertz seem a bit of a stretch at this point -- Witten is a far more functionally strong player at his best -- but Ertz's ultimate upside would seem to be similar. And with only one full starting season behind him, Ertz may have more NFL upside than others at the tight end position.