by Matt Waldman
Eric Ebron is the hot name among the NFL Draft media, but the University of North Carolina tight end isn’t some flash fire that ignited at Chapel Hill in mid-October. The Tar Heel has been ablaze for two seasons –- make it three if you count a searing 20.7 yards per catch average on 10 receptions as a freshman. Tyler Eifert, many a draftnik’s top tight end prospect in 2013’s class, is a moderate bush fire by comparison.
NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks wrote about Ebron this week. He invoked Jimmy Graham and Antonio Gates as impact players who Ebron could rival one day if the junior declares for the 2014 NFL Draft. There’s a lot of heft to that statement.
Brooks displayed the restraint not to compare Ebron’s skills directly to Graham and Gates. Such a comparison would be like linking Steve Wonder to Neil Young -- both are fine singer-songwriters with instrumental talents, but their styles are too disparate for a fine comparison.
Player comparisons are a problematic exercise. The intent is to provide a functional short hand. Do it well and the comparison can evoke layers of nuanced analysis of physical build, strengths, weaknesses, playing style, and schematic fit. Do it poorly and the end result can be one-dimensional. Worse, display a lack of sophisticated study and you can even have unintentional racial overtones.
I believe a better way to create player comparisons is to add more dimensions to the exercise. It’s far from a perfect method, but it does help me evoke multiple images of players that illustrate layers of analysis you don’t get with just one player. I like to provide chart a player along a spectrum of other players.
Something like this requires more explanation than a one-player comparison, but it also helps a reader see the common links these four players have:
- The agility to make plays in the open field.
- The speed to beat linebackers in coverage.
- The versatility for an offense to use them all over the formation.
The player in bold possesses these common traits at a higher or lower level of skill depending how far to the left or right he is on the spectrum. I’ve even thought about providing a y-axis to intersect with this x-axis so I could further highlight skills that a prospect has that place him in a spectrum of comparison with a different subset of players.
Reed would be a good example. At the University of Florida, Reed had the dimensions of an over-sized receiver. I had concerns about him adding enough weight to become a useful run blocker at the line of scrimmage in any capacity.
Reed has allayed those concerns with enough weight gain to look more like a functional tight end, and his blocking is getting better. But if I were to use an x and y-axis as a comparison chart for Reed last spring, it would have looked like this:
<-Vernon Davis - - Eric Ebron - Jordan Reed – Delanie Walker ->
Reed’s ability in the open field has a more elusive element from what I see in Davis. My skepticism of Reed’s build also led me to question how much weight he could gain. It meant that his place on a spectrum where Davis was the apex was lower than if I had confidence in him gaining the necessary weight for the position. However, Reed also fit along a spectrum of players who weren’t asked to play a pivotal part at the line of scrimmage as a blocker and were used more as H-Backs.
The apex player on Ebron’s y-axis would be Tony Gonzalez. The spectrum of players would include the likes of Keith Jackson and Jeremy Shockey. These three tight ends could block if called upon, but the strength of their games was stretching the seam and one-on-one matchups in the red zone. In their prime, all three were just a notch below freakish in terms of speed and agility, but still among the most dangerous weapons at their position when healthy.
All of this is a rough comparison for the sake of this column. I’ll have a more refined version for the 2014 Rookie Scouting Portfolio if Ebron declares. Still, I’ve seen enough to illustrate why he’s a first-round talent this year.
It’s tough to get position on a linebacker as a slot receiver when the linebacker is closer to the line of scrimmage at the beginning of the play, but Ebron runs towards the spot first and adjusts to the linebacker second -– this is a good conceptual technique.
There are a lot of skill players who give up position because they play the man first when they should be establishing position at the planned spot. The second thing about this block is that Ebron actually delivers a punch. There’s a clear uppercut motion and the contact drives the defender’s pads upward. This block not only clears the second level for Giovani Bernard, but it provides the back enough downhill momentum to break tackles in the secondary to reach the end zone.
It’s often easier to lock onto a defender at the line of scrimmage than it is approaching a defender from a distance. Ebron demonstrates what Brooks meant when he called the tight end a "sticky blocker."
Once again, Erbon works to the spot rather than to the man and then adjusts his angle to the oncoming defender. He gets his body square, delivers an economical punch and locks on to the chest of the linebacker at the right hash. The Tar Heel then drives the linebacker nine yards off the ball until he flattens the defender.
Here’s one last space play that I like a lot, because it’s a reverse and the demands on downfield blocking are even greater than some traditional run plays
Ebron releases like he’s on a pass pattern, but his skill at setting up and then occupying the safety in space is a huge reason this play is a touchdown. You can see the effort in real time and slow motion.
At the line of scrimmage, Ebron displays good technique off the snap with a flat back and strong punch.
Ebron’s pads are low enough to get his hands under the defensive end’s pads and deliver a punch that forces his opponent’s pads to snap skyward. However, Ebron does not get his hips and legs in position to drive or turn the defender. His arms lock out and the defender is able to cast Ebron aside to make a play on the running back entering the hole.
Here’s another example of what can happen when Ebron locks out his arms at the line of scrimmage.
Ebron is unlikely to develop into a 265-pound bad boy like Gronkowski, so technique will be even more important. Otherwise, bigger defenders will throw the tight end around as seen above.
But there is promise for Ebron to get better. Here’s a play where the tight end releases low, engages with a powerful, well-positioned punch, and then uses his legs to turn the defender’s back to the sideline.
Although the running back doesn’t gain much on this play, it’s not the fault of Ebron’s efforts. What’s most consistent about Ebron as a blocker is his initial punch and position to work a defender off that strike. When a tight end has these two facets of blocking technique as a starting point there is a lot to build on.
Manages Physical Play as a Receiver
If a receiver cannot handle getting knocked around and remain a productive factor in the offense, he isn’t long for the NFL. If a tight end can’t handle it in the passing game, he’s at best a special teamer or situational blocker. Here’s a post route where Ebron is bumped at the line and nailed after the catch.
Ebron could do a better job ducking through his release or taking the contact to the defender before getting chucked, but the tight end’s balance is good enough to maintain a strong pace with his route. Ebron extends his hands to catch the ball away from his chest, then demonstrates the awareness to tuck the ball under his left arm just before the safety over top delivers a shoulder to the tight end’s chest from the right side.
Ebron also does a fine job of snatching the football over his head and bringing it to his frame with a sudden motion. I also like the fact his eyes are on the quarterback as soon as he makes his break.
This play isn’t as hard of a hit as the last, but the fact he has to extend for the ball over his head with a hit coming is often a reason why even top-notch receiving prospects drop the football.
And as a top prospect, he does drop the ball a fair bit more than most will like to see. Here’s play that many scouts call a "concentration drop." It’s brought to you courtesy of Ebron’s hyper-awareness of safety Earl Wolff’s presence –- Wolff's a physical player with the potential to become a good NFL starter.
I like watching how players respond to a concentration drop because it says something about the player’s ability to refocus and maintain a competitive edge. Does the player go into a mini-slump and drop more passes? Does it last the game or for multiple weeks? Or, do they bounce back fast?
For instance, the reason I liked Patriots undrafted free agent Kenbrell Thompkins is that he demonstrated resiliency on and off the field. He works through his mistakes. It’s why I believe the Patriots have high expectations for Thopmkins and will be patient with him.
I’m still gauging Ebron’s resiliency on the field. So far it’s a mixed bag, but I have more to analyze. One positive is that Ebron catches the ball on the play after the dropped pass.
He’s not hit right away, but the shot Ebron takes is a solid blow that dislodges the football in many situations like it.
However, it appears these concentration drops –- at least in this game –- have a common factor. Here’s another smash screen not five minutes after the first drop.
It’s a testament to Ebron’s athleticism that UNC likes to use the tight end on screen passes often reserved for flankers and slot receivers. However, Ebron’s concentration is flagging when forced to catch and run in traffic around the line of scrimmage. Here’s a third drop on the same play late in the game in the red zone.
Concentration drops are difficult topic for some NFL teams. I talked with a personnel man this week about a prospect that the scouts on his team were divided on. He said that concentration drops were an illustration of how scouts can take an observation that could be objectified and turn it into a highly subjective element of their analysis. He said it was common to see scouts ignore concentration drops if they liked the prospect, but use these occurrences to criticize the player if they didn’t.
The way I’ll make a final assessment on Ebron’s hands after seeing these concentration drops is to watch more games and observe the following from his targets (both catches and drops):
- Type of routes
- Zone of the defense
- Position of the target in relation to the receiver’s body
- Contact from defenders
- Location of the contact from defenders
- Difficulty of the target
Another thing worth noting about all the drops in this game is that after watching four games, this is the only contest where I have seen multiple drops. It’s also the only contest where I have seen Ebron as a two-way player: he took snaps as a tight end and as pass rusher.
Watch the 90 seconds of highlights of Ebron at defensive and what you see is a player who will be sticking to tight end. Ebron lacks strength, doesn’t understand how to bend corners, or keep his body in control as an edge rusher. However, he does have promise using his hands, his speed and quickness translate, and what’s most impressive is that he has a heck of a motor.
Ebron’s hands and body control are far more refined as an offensive player.
But it pales in comparison to this play against Virginia Tech. It’s a Calvin Johnson-like play in the sense that Ebron has to highpoint the ball in traffic, turn his body away from the defender while securing the ball, and still maintain possession while hitting the ground hard.
It’s a great play at any level of football. These are the type of catches, paired with high-end athleticism, that will make many teams decide they’ll take Ebron and live with some untimely drops. Ask the teams that have benefitted from Brandon Marshall and Terrell Owens. Based on the athleticism, effort, versatility, and ability to thrive against physical play, I know that saying I’d "live with" the talents of Ebron would be a disservice to his current skill -– warts and all.