He's not just a tight end.
That's the reply myself and many draftniks seem to be repeating over and over when it comes to North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron.
Tight ends have a stigma as a "lesser" position on the football field. Like offensive guards, fullbacks and kickers, no one really wants a tight end in the first round—especially in the top 15 picks. So when Ebron sat down with Bleacher Report for an interview as part of the Gillette "Pressure Points" campaign, it was one of the first things I asked him about.
"If I’m just a tight end," Ebron said, "then I’d be expected to play fullback sometimes and block like a traditional tight end, but I don’t think I’m just a tight end or any ordinary tight end. If you need me to block, I will, and I’ll do a good job doing it. If you need me to run routes like a receiver, I can do that with ease. I think I’m a game-changer."
Being more than ordinary sums up Ebron, who broke North Carolina tight end receiving records in his junior season with 62 catches and 973 receiving yards.
If those sound more like receiver numbers than tight end numbers, that's because Ebron was far more like a receiver in head coach Larry Fedora's offense than a traditional (read: ordinary) tight end.
Ebron credits Fedora, along with his high school coach, for helping him become the football player he is today.
"Both of my head coaches—coach Rodney Brewington (then at Ben L. Smith High School in Greensboro, N.C.) pushed me getting back into football. (I pretty much gave football up after my grandfather's passing.) [Brewington] helped me establish my talent to what it was. Then I met Coach Fedora, and he helped me put it all together and take it to the next level," Ebron said.
"Other than the woman that birthed me, those are the most important people who helped me get to this point."
That talent is what Ebron has confidence—not cockiness—in.
When I asked Ebron if he was the best tight end in this draft (he is, by a margin), he refused to give a straight answer. "Am I?" Ebron asked, "I'd like to think so, but we'll find out, won't we?"
The reason Ebron dodges that question (he dodged it at the combine as well) is because he knows he's talented, but he also knows that everyone in the NFL is talented. To be the best tight end in the NFL, Ebron told me it would take knowledge, and that it comes down to the little details.
In a display of more of that confidence, Ebron also predicted in his combine presser (via Sports Illustrated's Chris Burke) that he would run under 4.5 in the 40-yard dash.
He didn't, instead running an official 4.6 (was initially an "unofficial" 4.5 according to the NFL Network broadcast). However, unofficial or official, it's important to remember he ran what he did with a pulled hamstring. Then, knowing he had pulled that hamstring, Ebron ran the 40 again and ran the exact same time.
I asked him to walk me through the process of running the 40.
"OK, here we go. First, I size up my landmark—somewhere past the 40-yard mark that I have to get to. Once you get one-1,000, two-1,000, three-1,000, you go. You don’t think. It’s just get to that mark as fast as you can. ... I'm just glad my armpits were dry, thanks to my Gillette family."
That answer—that hilarious answer, with all of its product-placement glory—was just part of the charisma that oozed out of Ebron along with his confidence in this short interview. It's always tough to quantify character, but Ebron has Rob Gronkowski-level panache without all of the off-field drama.
"I have no red flags," Ebron said. "Nothing. I feel like I have a clean slate."
At the combine, however, teams want to pressure a player; they dig and dig and dig until they can find something to rock a player's boat. For some, it's easy because of DUIs, suspensions or missed classes. For others, like Ebron, it becomes a bit tougher. Ebron recounted his combine interview with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
"They had this game plan set: The head coach started asking me, 'Who's this guy? Who's that guy?'—about who the Jaguars staff were—and then he started yelling, 'You don’t know us, why should we take the time to know you?'" Ebron said. "As I was delivering my answers, I saw the head coach sink deeper and deeper into the couch. After the meeting, they said they were impressed how I handled myself."
A guy with a record so clean that a team has to make up controversy to try to rattle him? That's rare. Combine that with a prospect so confident that he can make a head coach like Gus Bradley shrink away—that's even better.
|Top Tight Ends in the 2014 Draft|
|1||Eric Ebron||North Carolina||Top 15|
|2||Jace Amaro||Texas Tech||1st Round|
|4||Troy Niklas||Notre Dame||2nd-3rd|
|Schottey's Big Board|
Every player acquisition in the NFL (draft, free agency, trades, whatever) is a risk/reward analysis.
The reward is always the projection of how much a player can help your football team win games. The risk can be any number of things, from off-field issues to injuries to even just low levels of acquired talent (i.e. the player is "raw").
Ebron is the rare player who has no risk. There's no downside to Ebron other than what some teams might be looking for out of the tight end position. No legal issues, little academic issues, no injury concerns, no "coachability" questions, no effort problems. He's as clean a prospect as they come.
Even the teams that want blocking from the position are going to get a guy who gives his all, as Ebron told The Charlotte Observer's Jonathan Jones:
I’ve talked to NFL head coaches and they’ve said, "If I had to watch anybody that was blocking at the college level I would watch you because you were the most exciting blocker because you would always get after your block." And I would tell them that that’s my problem: I’m an aggressive blocker. If I’m going to put my hands on you, I want to destroy you. But that can also be my downfall, because as I’m over-aggressive I may lose you.
That echoes what Ryan McCrystal of Bleacher Report saw on tape when we wrote up his scouting report, noting that Ebron "lacks the strength to dominate as a blocker" but also "gives a strong effort as a blocker" and "fights hard as a blocker even when he's overmatched."
In that same scouting report, Matt Miller said that Ebron reminds him of Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas. Others have compared him to former Maryland and current San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis, whose conference tight end receiving record Ebron broke while at North Carolina.
In my mind, the best comparison is Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Vincent Jackson. Jackson, at 6'5", 241 pounds, ran a 4.46 in his combine 40-yard dash (significantly faster than Ebron, but on two healthy hamstrings). Ebron, at 6'4", 250 pounds, is on the small side of tight end just like Jackson is on the big side of receiver.
Sizes slightly different, the tape is almost identical—fearlessness over the middle, plus leaping ability and full extension for every jump ball, immediate release off the line and physicality to beat press coverage.
Frankly, if the Buccaneers drafted Ebron and handed him Jackson's jersey, I don't know if many fans would be able to tell the difference. Ebron's talent as a receiver is just that good.
He has the ability to change the game from the position in ways that only Gronkowski, Davis and New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham really do these days.
Ordinary? Not by a long shot.
Michael Schottey is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff on his archive page and follow him on Twitter. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations were obtained firsthand.