By Russ Lande
Ever since Kellen Winslow made an instant impact in the high-powered Air Coryell Chargers offense, explosive tight ends have become the ultimate chess piece for creative offensive coordinators, which is why teams constantly draft them so high.
North Carolina's Eric Ebron fits the mold of game-changing tight end to a tee, and he is the best tight end prospect I have evaluated since Kellen Winslow Jr., who would likely have become a dominant player if not for his motorcycle accident. 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.
At 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, Ebron fits the physical mold of the dynamic receiving tight end that NFL teams are drooling over. Not your classic in-line tight end, he lined up in a variety of spots, including in-line, out in the slot and as a motion H-back in the seven games I evaluated. Once off the ball, he accelerates to full speed quickly and does an excellent job of maintaining his route stem to disguise the route until the break point. He sells fakes well before making a cut, which allows him to consistently get the defender to turn his hips the wrong way, and then he bursts out of the cut to gain separation.
Not only able to get separation through sharp route running, Ebron possesses top-end playing speed and can run by defenders on seam and post routes. There are many athletic tight ends playing college football, but few show the courage and fearlessness to catch passes in traffic. It is interesting that for a player who doesn't always maintain concentration on the field, he does consistently catch passes in traffic, take hard hits after the catch and hold onto the ball.
For a player with natural hands who has shown the ability to make spectacular catches on off-target throws with surprising ease, he drops more passes than a player with his talent should. In the seven games I evaluated, he had 44 passes thrown his direction that he was able to get both hands on, but caught only 35. This is good for 79.5 percent, which is well below average for an elite player. He consistently displayed a bad habit of taking his eyes off the ball to look up the field before securing the ball and tucking it away, which led to him dropping passes that were easy to catch.
When he did secure the ball, he was a dominant runner after the catch. Quick getting started up the field, he has a burst to get away from the initial tackler and runs with great pad level, which enables him to run easily run through arm/grab tackles to gain yards after contact. He has the rare combination of explosiveness, playing strength, balance and aggressiveness running with the ball to make game changing plays running after the catch.
Although his blocking ability isn't what will draw teams to Ebron, the truth is that he can be a punishing blocker when he wants to. His level of success as a blocker, both from an in-line alignment or out in space, is completely dependent on his effort and technique. When he keeps his knees bent, stays over his feet and gets after the block aggressively, he consistently gets movement on the block and eliminates his man from the play. However, for a player with his talent he definitely will get high and give less than a stellar effort too often, which allows his man to make/disrupt plays.
According to NFL people I have spoken to, Ebron has never been in any trouble and has no character issues that will hinder his draft stock. In today's NFL where tight ends can not only catch many passes but can also be the catalyst for opening up the entire offense, Ebron deserves to be a top-10 draft pick. I am always concerned about tight ends and receivers who drop more than 20 percent of the passes they have a chance to catch, because most players do not improve their hands in the NFL. However, I would be willing to gamble on Ebron because he is such a rare physical specimen and seems to thrive on competition, which could be enough to get him to maintain his focus better so that he does not drop easy passes as often. If he stays healthy, I believe he will quickly become one of the top three tight ends in the NFL, regularly catching 70 passes a season and opening up his team's offense.
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Russ Lande writes about college scouting and the NFL draft for Sports on Earth. He is GM jr. scouting and college scouting director for the CFL's Montreal Alouettes and the Big Ten Network. He is a former scout for the Cleveland Browns and former scouting administrator for the St. Louis Rams. You can follow him@RUSSLANDE.