Talk of who the Green Bay Packers should draft with the 21st overall pick has (not wrongly) focused on the defense this offseason. But ask anyone who kept an eye on Green Bay's injury reports whether the offense should be considered secondary, and you'll understand why Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy should target North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron.
Green Bay lost James Jones and Jermichael Finley this offseason, but the team lost Finley to a neck injury Week 7 of the regular season, leaving tight ends Andrew Quarless and Brandon Bostick to fill the gap.
They didn't—at least not well.
Both combined for 39 receptions, 432 yards and three touchdowns. For context, Finley posted 67 receptions and 667 yards in 2012. He caught eight touchdowns in 2011.
Green Bay hoped Finley would develop into an elite tight end, and he flashed signs of that potential. If not for last season's neck injury, he might have finished 2013 with career-high numbers—he'd certainly paced himself to do so. His 25 receptions for 300 yards and three touchdowns accumulated in just five games; a season at that pace meant 80 receptions, nearly 1,000 yards and double-digit scores.
Quarless and Bostick aren't without merits. Bostick is widely heralded as the team's most athletic receiving tight end (sans Finley), and fans might also point out his blocking improved over the course of 2013. Quarless, on the other hand, missed all of 2012 while recovering from a blown-out knee but managed two games with six receptions and a touchdown.
That said, Mike McCarthy admitted this offseason, per Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com, that Quarless "just wasn't quite himself last season" and said last year "there was a big hurdle that he actually made it through the whole season." Bostick, on the other hand, didn't make it through the season. A foot injury led to him being placed on the injured reserve list in late December.
Green Bay shouldn't entrust its tight end position to a potential up-and-comer who has mostly made his name on special teams and another whose primary goal consists of avoiding injury for an entire season—at least not if a player of Eric Ebron's caliber falls far enough to pull the trigger.
Per NFL.com's Daniel Kim, at least one ex-NFL scout believes Ebron's ceiling exceeds Jimmy Graham. That scout pointed out Ebron's fearlessness catching passes in traffic, his ability to make game-changing plays after the catch and his potential to be a "punishing blocker when he wants to."
Green Bay needs those characteristics and not only because Finley is gone.
Drafting Ebron reinvents Green Bay's passing game. He creates an outlet for Aaron Rodgers, shouldering some of the responsibility that would otherwise fall to Jarrett Boykin and Myles White (or whomever ends up the fourth wide receiver). Ebron also hedges against the possibility either Jordy Nelson or Randall Cobb—who have missed nearly a season between them since 2012—drops from the lineup due to an injury.
He's a smart pick. He kills two birds with one draft selection, fortifying Green Bay's passing game while minimizing the damage a single injury could incur and filling the significant gap left by Finley (and Jones).
More impressive, he could end up the player Thompson and McCarthy hoped Finley might become: an elite receiving tight end who can stretch the field or stick around to block.