The New York Giants carried four tight ends in 2013 but failed to get much production out of any of them. Brandon Myers proved ineffective as the starter, Bear Pascoe is primarily a blocker, Adrien Robinson spent most of the year injured and Larry Donnell rarely saw the field. It’s tough to rely on any of those players going into 2014, so management will probably look to external options. With the hiring of Ben McAdoo as offensive coordinator opening up the possibility of using the tight end as a primary receiver, a high draft pick at the position would be justifiable. Eric Ebron out of North Carolina could be a candidate for the 12th overall selection.
Ebron lined up all over the field as the focal point of UNC’s passing offense, playing snaps on the line, in the slot and out wide. Here we’ll examine what made him so effective.
The first thing that stands out about Ebron is his rare speed for the position. He has the wheels to run right past most linebackers and safeties:
And can break out downfield if the first defender fails to make a play:
Speed kills, and Ebron’s is good enough to continue making plays like these at the next level.
Speed alone won’t get anyone consistently open in the NFL though. The ability to run routes sharply and intelligently is essential for any pass-catcher. Fortunately Ebron has displayed both those traits. Here he is matched up on a cornerback in man coverage:
He is able to create separation without a speed advantage by cutting on a dime. It’s an impressive feat for a player his size and even more of a problem for slower-footed linebackers, as we can see here:
This looks like cover-2 but the point remains the same - Ebron will be an impossible man cover assignment for most linebackers because of his speed and agility. There just aren’t many that can match up athletically. His moves don’t end with simple cuts though. Take this play for example:
Ebron fools the linebacker on an impressively executed double move. He keeps his feet moving as he turns and "stops," making it easy to accelerate upfield past the player biting down on the fake. Linebackers were not the only players he was capable of outmaneuvering though:
Here he begins a break to the outside, getting the safety to turn his hips that way. He then executes a quick swim over the defender to break back inside and get significant separation. Unfortunately he drops the sure touchdown, but it’s still a nice play from a route-running perspective.
Though some of the above examples are against zone coverage the techniques are used to beat a single man. Defeating zone usually requires less of that one-on-one ability than awareness of the surrounding space and the defenders in it. Consider these two plays:
Ebron is able to recognize the coverages and sit down in the gaps. Despite not being thrown to on the second play it is a fine bit of footwork to get in position. Here’s one that shows the same awareness in the deep part of the field:
Even with his head turned to the quarterback he sees the safety moving down and makes a slight adjustment to his route to get open over the top. The awareness is impressive and part of the reason I see Ebron having quick success as a receiver in the NFL.
Catch Radius and Body Control
Ebron has all the skills to get open, but nobody creates space for themselves on every play. The ability to get your body in position and catch the ball away from it can make you an attractive target even when covered. Let’s look at a couple of examples:
Ebron makes this catch against reasonably good coverage look easy because of how well he controls his body and secures the ball away from the defender. He’s able to twist himself while running downfield and reach back for the ball where only he can get at it. These traits are particularly valuable in the redzone where space is limited, as we can see here:
Good body control and a wide catch radius can help compensate for errant throws as well:
Those are the kind of plays we saw very little of this past season. It’s nice to have a receiver that can haul in a less than perfect pass. All this said it should be noted that Ebron has struggled with some concentration drops. It's probably not a huge issue for a player that was targeted so often, but still a minor negative to keep in mind.
Blocking is the only true area of concern with Ebron’s game. He lacks the build of a prototypical tight end, giving up significant weight to many of the players that will line up across from him. As a dynamic receiver his pass protection assignments will likely be limited but on running plays he’ll be tougher to hide. If he’s going to be given snaps on the line he can’t be a liability on those plays. Fortunately he was tasked with quite a few in-line blocking assignments at North Carolina, so let’s see how he did.
What immediately stands out is that despite his size, Ebron usually wasn't overmatched in his run blocking assignments even against quality opposition. Here he faces fellow 2014 prospect Jeremiah Attaochu:
As the run goes to the other side Ebron is able to effectively block Attouchu from the action without conceding any ground. He positions himself well, maintains a wide base and gets his hands locked into his opponent’s pads to sustain the block. From a physical and technique standpoint it’s a nice play, but not one he made with consistency. Here he is facing Attaochu again:
This time the body positioning and hand placement aren’t as great. Attaochu disengages and slips inside to help stop the run. Though the failure can be attributed partly to technique, you have to worry about Ebron’s lack of bulk being an issue on point-of-attack blocks in the NFL.
One seemingly correctable flaw in his execution of these blocks is frequent overextension. Ebron typically attacks his man with energy, but too much aggression often leaves him in a vulnerable position:
When the man he's blocking gives ground Ebron has no legs to stand on and he becomes nothing more than a traffic cone. He needs to develop consistency resetting his feet so he can stay upright and square with the play. When his footwork is sound the results can be much more encouraging:
Even though this is a power run it shows successful execution of the type of block Ebron would often be asked to make in a zone scheme. Despite not being able to generate push on 277 pound Anthony Chickillo he keeps his hands locked in and his feet moving to sustain the block and let the run progress past him. He was able move people off the line of scrimmage at times though:
These are displays of power and tenacity that make me bullish on Ebron’s upside as a blocker. Despite his size he doesn’t lack strength to the point that blocking defensive ends and rush linebackers is an impossibility, and the effort shows up consistently even though he got plenty of work as the focus of UNC’s passing offense. When his technique was on he wasn’t a liability in-line.
These plays notwithstanding I wouldn’t expect straight-ahead, point-of-attack blocks to be a strength of his in the NFL, at least right away. If he struggles with them in practice he should be given more assignments like the first one where he’s tasked with sealing the defender out of the play. Let’s look at some more examples of that:
With these types of assignments he can use his quickness to get in position and doesn’t need to dominate his man for the play to be successful.
One final thing to consider is his ability to overpower smaller defensive backs on screen blocks. We could see more plays like this in McAdoo’s version of the West Coast offense:
The bottom line with Ebron’s blocking is that he needs to continue developing the technique to maximize what are fairly decent physical tools. He flashes good hand use and body positioning, but those fundamentals sometimes break down on tough assignments. The willingness to block is certainly there - many of his failures are in fact a product of over-aggression. If he learns to play more under control, marrying fundamentals with tenacity, he should have no issue playing snaps on the line with his hand in the dirt.
Ebron appears to have the athletic ability, intensity and football intelligence to make an immediate impact in the new Giants offense. He’ll be a tough man cover assignment for linebackers because of his speed and cornerbacks because of his size and body control. He also understands how to beat zone. McAdoo will have the option of playing him on the line, in the slot or out wide to create favorable matchups and threaten all areas of the field. His size and catch radius should make for a particularly valuable asset in the redzone. His run blocking is a work in progress but the foundation is there. I believe he’ll be a great option for the Giants if available at 12.
Note: You can find more footage of Ebron and just about any other 2014 prospect at draftbreakdown.com