The most creative offensive minds in the NFL have started using tight ends like a queen on the chessboard. Crafty play designers are cleverly deploying big, athletic pass catchers at various spots on the field to create mismatches in the passing game. Although this is certainly not a new phenomenon at the pro level, the presence of basketball-like athletes at the position has helped the strategy produce fireworks in some systems.
With scouts and coaches prone to stealing ideas from successful units, finding a big-bodied, explosive tight end in the 2014 NFL Draft has become a top priority for several teams. That's why North Carolina's Eric Ebron has garnered so much buzz since he emerged as one of college football's top tight ends last year.
Measuring 6-foot-4, 250 pounds with 4.60-second speed, Ebron is a wide receiver trapped in a tight end's body. He is quick enough to blow past linebackers and safeties on vertical routes, yet possesses the size and strength to overpower nickel corners in space. Additionally, he is a terrific open-field runner who has the speed and agility to turn short routes and bubble screens into big gains.
The North Carolina coaching staff took advantage of Ebron's diverse skill set by using him primarily as a slot receiver. He played the game extensively from an upright position, rarely aligning as a traditional tight end with his hand in the ground. This deployment allowed Ebron to exploit smaller defenders on the perimeter, especially with fade routes in the red zone.
But Ebron's game isn't without flaws. At this point, I think he's a better athlete than receiver. He relies extensively on his raw talent to get open instead of sound technique and fundamentals. As a result, he isn't consistently in optimal body position to snag balls coming out of breaks, which leads him to drop some catchable passes. To his credit, Ebron makes enough remarkable one-handed grabs to overlook his lapses of concentration and focus, but playing with better balance and body control would help him become a more dependable pass catcher at the next level.
As a blocker, Ebron needs to exhibit more effort in his attempts. He has all of the physical tools needed to be a dominant blocker on the edge, but he fails to control or sustain defenders at the point of attack. This doesn't make sense based on his strength (Ebron recorded 24 reps on the bench press at the NFL Scouting Combine) and overall athleticism. Thus, he must make a decision to be a better blocker as a pro or run the risk of being viewed as a situational player in some offenses.
Overall, Ebron is an explosive athlete with the potential to develop into a star in the NFL. Right now, he feels like a poor man's Vernon Davis. Ebron isn't quite as freakishly athletic as the San Francisco 49ers tight end, but he has the ability to produce big plays in the passing game as a dynamic weapon on the perimeter. With more teams searching for tight ends possessing that kind of potential, Ebron should hear his name called relatively early on May 8.
NOTE: The franchises that follow are those that could best utilize Ebron's talents, regardless of draft position or how the rest of the pre-draft process plays out.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (No. 7 overall pick)
New offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford has a host of weapons to work with on the perimeter, but a deep threat down the middle would open up the field for the quarterback -- whether it's Josh McCown, Mike Glennon or a rookie. Ebron certainly fits the bill, as he excels at blowing past defenders on seam routes and is starting to learn how to use his size and strength to create space on underneath routes. With Mike Williams now a Buffalo Bill, the Bucs might be even more willing to expend a top pick on a playmaker like Ebron. Tampa Bay's offense already has tremendous potential -- with a versatile piece like Ebron, this team could become an NFC heavyweight in 2014.
Buffalo Bills (No. 9)
If Doug Marrone wants franchise quarterback EJ Manuel to succeed, he must surround the youngster with big-play options in the passing game. The Bills have capable perimeter threats in Stevie Johnson, Robert Woods and the newly acquired Williams, but they lack a dynamic player in the middle of the field. Ebron's presence would create mismatches, leading to more outside opportunities for that receiving trio. In the run game, the tight end would force opponents to think twice before committing eight defenders in the box, creating bigger running lanes for C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. With each of those scenarios alleviating the pressure on Manuel to carry the load, the possibility of adding Ebron could become a reality on draft night.
New York Giants (No. 12)
The Giants have been shuffling tight ends in and out of the lineup since Jeremy Shockey departed in 2008. Although the results have been positive for the most part -- with a cast of retreads manning the position -- it's time for the front office to supply Eli Manning with a legitimate weapon down the middle. Ebron is a big, athletic tight end in the mold of Shockey, but he offers a little more explosiveness as a quasi-receiver in spread formations. Given the Giants' desire to diversify their offensive attack under new coordinator Ben McAdoo, adding Ebron to the unit could help Manning regain his Pro Bowl form in 2014.
Baltimore Ravens (No. 17)
Dennis Pitta's new long-term contract and the addition of Owen Daniels on Thursday would appear to take the Ravens out of the tight end market in May, but coordinator Gary Kubiak is a big fan of running multiple-tight end formations. He masterfully used a variety of "12" personnel packages (one running back, two tight ends and two receivers) in Houston to direct a high-powered offense; he certainly will attempt to exploit the vulnerable areas between the hashes in his new role to help Joe Flacco become a more efficient playmaker from the pocket. With Ebron's athleticism and skills providing Kubiak with the flexibility to use an array of formations from "12" personnel, the Ravens would create all kinds of headaches for opposing defensive coordinators attempting to match up with base or nickel packages. More importantly, Ebron's presence on the perimeter would give Flacco the big-bodied playmaker that he lost when Anquan Boldin was traded to the San Francisco 49ers.
New York Jets (No. 18)
After fielding a punchless lineup in 2013, the Jets have worked diligently this offseason to upgrade the weapons in the passing game. The team added Eric Decker as a potential No. 1 receiver and signed Jacoby Ford to bring some speed to the group. With Jeremy Kerley showing signs of developing into an upper-echelon slot receiver, the Jets simply need a dynamic tight end to complete the offensive makeover. Ebron averaged more than 16 yards per catch as a Tar Heel, while displaying a knack for running past defenders on vertical routes. His exceptional ball skills in the red zone could help Michael Vick and/or Geno Smith spark a vastly improved Jets offense this season.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.