Without a doubt, North Carolina’s Eric Ebron is considered the top tight end of the 2014 NFL draft.
But is he worth the hype? And what does “best in the 2014 NFL draft class” mean in relation to the preceding ones?
Just how good is he anyway?
What We Like
Ebron runs decent routes, gaining separation by accelerating through a break and is a complete pain for defenders in man coverage whether he’s facing a linebacker across the middle or a cornerback on the outside.
He’s not the fastest player, but his burst and acceleration more than make up for it.
When catching the ball, Ebron shows great agility and balance and has made some very nice catches, including some exceptional one-handed grabs.
Ebron has a nice catch radius and is able to snatch the ball out of the air, away from his body, with ease.
He’s a tough player who will play physically both catching the ball and blocking for a running play. Ebron is a very versatile player as well, having lined up both in-line and in the slot, and playing special teams as well.
What We Don’t Like
While Ebron is a tough player, you’d like to see a tight end of his size fight harder for contested balls. He has the frame to gain some more mass and muscle, but even what he has should be enough to overcome defenders. He has the body control to block defenders—especially corners—out; he just needs to learn to use it.
And as physical as he is, you saw him moved off his routes on occasion—again, he needs to fight through this more at the NFL level. There is room for some technique improvement, and while he runs an OK route, he can be a bit sloppy as well.
While he’s a willing blocker, Ebron isn’t an overpowering one and adding more muscle, along with improving his technique, will make him more useful for NFL franchises. For that matter, teams will need him to so he can stand up to edge-rushers when left in to block on a pass play.
One big thing which is a concern for a guy who, primarily, should be a pass-catching tight end, is the drops which occasionally plague him. This was really driven home during North Carolina’s pro day, as he dropped multiple passes.
Focus is a concern, and you can point to it in the other areas he needs to improve upon, such as the aforementioned sloppy route running. Overall, Ebron needs to make sure his head is in the game at all times if he’s to become a featured part of an offense.
Had an 11.43% drop rate in 2013 RT @jjones9: Here at UNC Pro Day where TE Eric Ebron has registered three drops so ffar— Josh Norris (@JoshNorris) March 25, 2014
We know he can do it. We’ve seen him take a big hit and make the catch.
He just needs to do it every time.
Wait, I’ve Seen This Before
The most common comparison you see around the Internet is San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis—maybe because he broke Davis’ ACC record for receiving yards by a tight end.
There are similarities, as both are tremendous athletes (though Ebron isn’t nearly as much of a freak as Davis was coming out) who can line up as wide receivers, but whose tight end size makes it tough to cover them like one.
I’m intrigued by the choice Bleacher Report's Matt Miller makes in his pro-player comparison.
I haven’t seen quite enough of Julius Thomas to say how apt the comparison is. He was tremendous last season but had massive injury issues the two previous, resulting in just seven targets, one catch and a lot of missed games.
I see what Miller is saying, though, about both being “meh” blockers with very good (not freakish) athletic ability.
So let’s say Davis is the very high side of Ebron’s potential, while “Orange Julius” is the more likely result.
I’d take that in a heartbeat.
As it stands right now, Ebron is a pass-catching weapon who is not someone you can count on as much as you would like because of the focus and blocking issues.
While you’d love him to be a “complete” tight end, you’re drafting him for his hands, and if he can keep his head on straight during the game he’ll make some nice catches.
He’ll probably struggle a little at times as he acclimates—much like the wide receivers he will replace in the slot—but will have a solid year.
With the disclaimer that, of course, a lot of this will depend on where he lands, it seems that Ebron has a good chance to be a very good tight end in the NFL. He might not reach the level of play a Davis, Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham or even a Jason Witten has, but he could be among the next tier of tight ends. That includes guys like Thomas, Kyle Rudolph or Martellus Bennett.
Assuming Ebron does land end up in the perfect fit, however, that may be a different story. Former NFL scout Russ Lande believes Ebron could be even better than Graham, via Daniel Kim of NFL.com:
He is the best tight-end prospect I have evaluated since Kellen Winslow Jr. Although many are projecting that teams like the Ravens and Jets will be interested in him, a number of NFL people I've spoken with recently believe he will be selected in the top 12, because he is a rare talent who could be better than Jimmy Graham.
Those players are very good tight ends with a lot of receiving ability but aren’t guys who are outstanding blockers—or, in Bennett’s case, aren’t asked to block as much now due to scheme. But if Lande is correct, it won't just be Ebron's blocking that will set him apart from that group.
How Does He Compare to…
Back in 2012, Around the League writer Gregg Rosenthal wrote a piece about the best first-round tight ends of the last decade.
If we take his list and add in tight ends from the two drafts since, it looks like this:
- Vernon Davis, 49ers (No. 6, 2006)
- Dallas Clark, Colts (No. 24, 2003)
- Heath Miller, Steelers (No. 30, 2005)
- Kellen Winslow, Browns (No. 6. 2004)
- Brandon Pettigrew, Lions (No. 20, 2009)
- Jeremy Shockey, Giants (No. 14, 2002)
- Dustin Keller, Jets (No. 30, 2008)
- Marcedes Lewis, Jaguars (No. 28, 2006)
- Jermaine Gresham, Bengals (No. 21, 2010)
- Daniel Graham, Patriots (No. 21, 2002)
- Greg Olsen, Bears (No. 31, 2007)
- Ben Watson, Patriots (No. 32, 2004)
- Jerramy Stevens, (No. 28, 2002)
- Tyler Eifert, Bengals (No. 21, 2013)
|Jeremy Shockey, Giants (No. 14, 2002)||Kellen Winslow, Browns (No. 6. 2004)||Marcedes Lewis, Jaguars (No. 28, 2006)||Jermaine Gresham, Bengals (No. 21, 2010)|
|Daniel Graham, Patriots (No. 21, 2002)||Ben Watson, Patriots (No. 32, 2004)||Greg Olsen, Bears (No. 31, 2007)||Tyler Eifert, Bengals (No. 21, 2013)|
|Jerramy Stevens (No. 28, 2002)||Heath Miller, Steelers (No. 30, 2005)||Dustin Keller, Jets (No. 30, 2008)|
|Dallas Clark, Colts (No. 24, 2003)||Vernon Davis, 49ers (No. 6, 2006)||Brandon Pettigrew, Lions (No. 20, 2009)|
Now, you can see quite a strata of players here, and we know some fantastic tight ends who aren’t on this list as well, since Jimmy Graham (No. 95, 2010) and Rob Gronkowski (No. 42, 2010) weren’t first-rounders.
Where does Ebron (potentially) fit on this list?
Well, if he reaches his potential, he’s better than most of the list—guys like Heath Miller, Kellen Winslow, Greg Olsen and Brandon Pettigrew won’t be in his class.
Eric Ebron should be picked—
If he just plays to his current level, he’s still better than the likes of Ben Watson, Jerramy Stevens, Jermaine Gresham and Daniel Graham.
So without a crystal ball (because mine is in the shop with the time-traveling DeLorean and my TARDIS) the best guess is he’ll end up a better pick than a lot of the first-round tight ends on this list, who Rosenthal considered the best of the tight ends.
In the end, Ebron clearly has the potential to be exceptional but doesn’t appear to have the upside to be among the elite at the position. That’s no put-down though—his abilities can make him a very potent weapon for any offense he steps into.
Andrew Garda is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association. He is also a member of the fantasy football staff at FootballGuys.com and the NFL writer at CheeseheadTV.com. You can follow him @andrew_garda on Twitter.