North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron has the ability to create matchups at the NFL level because of his speed, athletic skill set and production after the catch.
Today, let’s break down the former Tar Heel, talk about his development as a route-runner and project how the expected first-round pick will be utilized in the pro game.
Ebron’s Athletic Skill Set
When you turn on the tape, it’s easy to see Ebron’s ability as a receiving threat at the tight end position from multiple alignments on the field.
At 6’4”, 250 pounds, the ACC product has the straight-line speed (4.6 40-yard dash time) and athleticism to accelerate out of his breaks to separate from safeties/linebackers.
Ebron still has to develop his overall route-running, but he can create leverage on inside-breaking concepts, split Cover 2 on the seam route and use his size/frame to shield defenders at the point of attack.
Plus, Ebron is explosive after the catch in the short-to-intermediate route tree where he can get to the edge of a zone scheme, work vertically in the open field to expose poor angles from the secondary or drop his pad level on contact to pick up extra yardage.
There are times when he struggles with drops, but he does show the ability to adjust to the football, absorb contact and make plays on throws outside of his frame.
In terms of a matchup weapon, Ebron is a prime target in the middle of the field who can work from a variety of alignments or produce inside of the red zone on the seam and 7 (corner).
As an in-line blocker, Ebron isn’t going to compare to Iowa’s C.J. Fiedorowicz in the run game when breaking down his ability to control the point and secure the edge.
Instead, I view Ebron as the “move guy” (off-the-ball tight end), but don't expect him to win consistently blocking down on the Power O or Counter OF.
Ebron’s value—and the reason he is expected to come off the board in the first round—centers on his ability to win in the passing game.
Projecting Ebron’s Role in the NFL
With Ebron removed as a receiver, what are the alignments and route schemes that will allow NFL teams to feature the tight end?
Here’s a look at the Saints in an empty formation with tight end Jimmy Graham aligned as the No. 3 receiver (count outside-in) to the closed (strong) side of the formation.
From this alignment, Graham can attack the top of the defense with the seam, 7 (corner), deep over route or the dig (square-in) at a depth of 12-15 yards.
Underneath, defenses have to prep for Graham to run the three-step slant, the stick-out (part of the “tare” combination), shallow drive route and the flat (can convert to the wheel route).
Base concepts that put Ebron in a position to expose a variety of defensive schemes from an alignment inside of the numbers.
NFL offenses can also align Ebron as the wing in a two-tight-end look, the stack or bunch, or use pre-snap motion to gain a positive matchup depending on the defensive game plan.
Plus, Ebron can align as the backside “X” receiver in a 3x1 Doubles Slot formation (or “Dakota” formation), an alignment that shows up often with the Saints, Patriots, Broncos, etc. in the red zone to isolate the tight end in a one-on-one matchup.
Using this example from the Patriots-Panthers game this past season, check out the pre-snap alignment of tight end Rob Gronkowski as the backside “X” receiver in the “Dakota” formation.
With the Panthers playing Cover 1 (and Gronkowski in a plus-split), the tight end can run the slant or the fade versus press coverage. This gives quarterback Tom Brady a one-on-one matchup to target the tight end with the free safety removed in the deep middle of the field.
The bottom line with Ebron is the formation flexibility he can bring to an NFL offense in 2014. And that allows offensive coordinators to get creative when installing the game plan.
Creating Matchups Based on Alignment
There are multiple ways NFL offenses can use the tight end position to create matchups at all levels of the field.
Whether that is the seam route versus Cover 4, the deep over versus Cover 1, the inside vertical seam versus both Cover 2 and Cover 3 or the backside slant in the red zone, the ability to utilize the tight end leads to production.
This is an example of the tight end (in the “Dakota” formation) running the backside slant versus Cover 1 from the Chiefs-Broncos game in 2013.
With the Broncos running the front-side “tare” combination, tight end Julius Thomas wins on the release versus safety Eric Berry and establishes inside positioning to create leverage back to the football.
And that’s all quarterback Peyton Manning needs to deliver the ball for a score before the free safety can impact the throw.
Another example versus Cover 2 is that inside vertical seam we talked about. Occupy the deep-half safeties (outside 9 routes) and isolate the tight end down the middle of the field with the Mike ‘backer playing with his back to the football.
Here’s a look at the Cowboys and tight end Jason Witten versus the Giants’ Cover 2 shell inside of the red zone.
With Witten aligned as the No. 3 to the closed side of the formation, the Cowboys send two outside verticals up the field to widen the safeties off their landmarks (top of the numbers). This creates that one-on-one matchup inside for Witten versus the Mike ‘backer.
Tough spot for the Mike ‘backer. Even with both safeties overlapping the seam route (break on the throw), the linebacker can’t find the ball as quarterback Tony Romo puts this throw on the back shoulder of Witten for six points.
These are just two quick examples, but you can get an idea of how Ebron can be featured inside of the red zone to produce points in the NFL.
Is Ebron a Top-15 Talent?
Ebron is still a developing player, but given his skill set (and the demand for production at the tight end position in the NFL), the UNC product should be viewed as a top-15 talent in this year’s class.
As a former safety in the NFL, I understand how the tight end can impact a defensive game plan and put stress on the secondary when the ball gets inside of the 20-yard line.
Ebron has the ability to stretch a defense down the middle of the field or win as a receiver removed from the core of the formation. And that’s exactly what NFL offenses want at the tight end position in today’s game.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.