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Significance of Ertz, Pugh and Kennard Contracts

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Cleveland Browns Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

Background: Oct 17, 2021; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Arizona Cardinals guard Justin Pugh (67) at the line of scrimmage against the Cleveland Browns during the second quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Galvin

After the news came in last evening that the Cardinals have re-signed TE Zach Ertz to a 3 year contract and that LG Justin Pugh has restructured his contract to save the team some much needed cap space, in the immortal words of Fergie of the Black Eyes Peas, I “got a feeling” that “tonight’s gonna be a good night.”

From this long-time fan’s perspective, to win in the NFL you need tough-nosed veterans who feel a keen sense of loyalty to their team, their coaches and their teammates. Guys who are willing to give a little to get a lot in return.

Zach Ertz was a mid-season godsend for the Cardinals last year.

While no one can ever replace a record-shattering Hall of Famer like Larry Fitzgerald, Zach Ertz in a number of ways is cut from a similar cloth, particularly in the way he attacks the seams, corners and intermediate areas of the football field. Just as importantly, Ertz is a go-to type of receiver on 3rd downs and in the red zone.

As soon as Ertz’s 3 year $31.5M contract was announced, a number of Cardinals’ fans were lamenting that the Cardinals were over-paying for Ertz. Not so fast, guys and gals:

When one considers that TEs Dalton Schultz (DAL), Mike Gesicki (MIA) and David Njoku (CLE) were franchise tagged at $10.9M, this year’s market value for the top UFA TEs was established. And I think the Ertz signing is a feather in the Cardinals’ cap in that they didn’t have to resort to slapping the f-tag on Ertz.

Ertz re-signed because he really wants to be in Arizona with the Cardinals and because the Cardinals really want him to be a key fixture in their offense for years to come,

2021 TE Receiving Stats:

  • Dalton Schultz: 78 catches for 808 yards (10.4 ave.) and 8 TDs
  • Zach Ertz: 74 catches for 763 yards (10.3 ave.) and 5 TDs.
  • Mike Gesicki: 73 catches for 780 yards (10.7 ave.) and 2 TDs
  • David Njoku: 36 catches for 475 yards (13.2 ave,) and 4 TDs

2021 TE Pass Blocking Grades Per PFF:

  • Zach Ertz: 82.0
  • David Njoku: 72.7
  • Dalton Schultz: 67.3
  • Mike Gesicki: 36.1

Zach Ertz is not one of the better run blocking TEs in the NFL at 45.8, but Ertz has always been a featured TE in the passing game, both as a receiver and as a pass protector.

It would therefore be a coup for the Cardinals to re-sign TE Maxx Williams (72.0), who is one of the best, if not the best, run blocking TEs in the NFL. Williams posted this auspicious “run it back together” tweet to Zach Ertz:

If you saw Zach Ertz’s tearful farewell to his Eagles’ teammates and fans, you got a privileged glimpse at how steadfastly loyal a cat Zach Ertz is.

Well, now that Zach Ertz’s heart and soul are in Arizona, his wristbands have turned from green to red. As American poet Emily Dickinson would say, this guy is “punctual as a Star.”

Another Cardinal who is “punctual as a Star” is Justin Pugh. It is no secret that he loves playing for the Cardinals and he enjoys living in Arizona. While he is not the literal captain of the offensive line, his leadership since he arrived in Arizona has been impressive. Pugh hosts weekly morale building dinners at his abode for his offensive line and quarterbacks. To say that Justin Pugh is completely “bought in” to what the Cardinals are doing in The Valley is an understatement.

For the second year in a row, Justin Pugh has agreed to a pay cut, this time lowering his cap hit by roughly $4M by agreeing to take a one year $5.5M contract (guaranteed) with incentives.

In my opinion, and I have been saying this for quite a while, Justin Pugh is one of the most unsung and under-appreciated players on the Cardinals’ roster.

  • Do you know that Justin Pugh did not give up a single sack last season?
  • Do you know that he has only given up 1 sack in the last two years?
  • Do you know he only committed 2 penalties last year?
  • Do you know that in the last four games he’s played versus Aaron Donald he has not given up one sack? (Alas, Pugh missed the MNF loss to the Rams where Donald went off for 14 QB pressures and 3 sacks).
  • Do you know that Justin Pugh has the 9th highest pass blocking grade in the NFL for starting guards (over 500 snaps) at 73.4?
  • Do you know that in 2020, Justin Pugh had the 7th highest pass blocking grade for starting guards (over 500 snaps) at 74.4?

Justin Pugh can easily make the argument that he is a top 10 guard in the NFL and yet he has been humbly willing to make contract sacrifices for the good of the team, now two years in a row.

Like Fergie’s refrain, “tonight’s gonna be a good night.”

I also want to take this occasion to recognize OLB Devon Kennard’s willingness to take a pay cut in order to stay with the Cardinals. To reiterate, you win in this league with tough, hard-nosed veterans who perform their roles to the best of their ability.

Devon Kennard is one of the most physical and aggressive run defenders on a team that needs more of them. He is the best edge-setter on the roster. His stalwart play on the Cardinals’ goal-line defense is one of the main reasons why the Cardinals have pulled off a number of impressive goal-line stands over the past couple of years.

  • Do you know that Devon Kennard had the second highest PFF grade on the 2021 defense ay 77.0? Second only to J.J. Watt (78.6).
  • Do you know that Devon Kennard had the highest run defense grade on the team at 78.5?
  • Kennard has created a “niche” role as a situational defender. As such, he certainly made the most of his 280 snaps in 2021.

On the eve of free agency, kudos to the Cardinals and to Zach Ertz, Justin Pugh and Devon Kennard for taking three significant steps forward toward pursuing the team’s goals in 2022, especially after what has been a tumultuous off-season for the Cardinals to this point.

Can the Cardinals carry this positive momentum forward throughout the pivotal days and weeks to come?

Without question, Zach Ertz, Justin Pugh and Devon Kennard are counting on it. Call the three of them the “tone setters.”