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North Carolina's Eric Ebron could be NFL's 'next great tight end'

AP Photo/Gerry Broome
North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron could have a major impact on an offense once he gets to the NFL.

In his weekly Scout's Take notebook, former NFL scout Bucky Brooks takes a look at the biggest developments in college football and how the NFL community is reacting to them. Among his topics this week (click on link to take you directly there):

» What do NFL scouts say about Oregon QB Marcus Mariota?
» Tap the brakes on hyping up prospects in Gators' secondary
» Selecting the top three Heisman Trophy contenders

The copycat nature of the NFL has prompted several teams to look for an ultra-athletic pass catcher capable of dominating between the hashes. Savvy offensive coordinators are looking to build a dynamic passing game around the next Jimmy Graham or Antonio Gates that enters the league.

Miami's Rayshawn Jenkins (26) chases North Carolina's Eric Ebron (85) as Ebron reaches for a pass during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013. Miami won 27-23. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
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Based on the buzz circulating in NFL circles, the next great tight end could be North Carolina's Eric Ebron. The 6-foot-4, 245-pound junior is a long, rangy basketball-like athlete with size, speed and agility to overwhelm defenders on the second level. He is simply too fast and explosive for most linebackers to shadow down the seam, but is too big and physical for safeties and nickel corners to hold up in coverage. With such a decided advantage against defenders, Ebron offers offensive coordinators an intriguing option to use to create mismatches in space.

Against Miami (Fla.), Ebron's exceptional talent and potential was on display in an eight-catch, 199-yard performance that showcased his versatile skills as a hybrid tight end. He made plays down the seam on vertical routes, while also gaining separation from defenders on short- and intermediate crossing routes. Additionally, Ebron showed the ability to run away from the defense on "catch-and-run" passes, which makes him a dangerous threat in a passing game that places a premium on getting the ball quickly into the hands of playmakers.

From a blocking standpoint, Ebron is a sticky blocker capable of battling physical defenders on the edges. Although he isn't the nastiest or most physical blocker at the point of attack, Ebron does a decent job of using body position to stay in front of defenders to seal the edges. Now, he still needs to make major strides to thrive as an end-line tight end at the next level, but he is certainly a functional blocker capable of staying on the field as a "move" tight end in open formations.

With Ebron flashing some of the same traits that have made Graham and Gates dominant pass catchers in league where athleticism is valued at the tight end position, the North Carolina standout could emerge as the top tight end in the 2014 or 2015 draft class.

Differing opinions on Mariota

There's been a lot of speculation about Mariota making the leap to the NFL after the season, so I've been taking copious notes on the redshirt sophomore's play this fall, which included penning a breakdown of his performance against Cal.

Although Mariota's play on that night didn't live up to his customary standard, it was still easy to see the talent and potential that has NFL scouts salivating over the prospects of landing a franchise-caliber signal-caller in the 2014 draft. In fact, it has been fairly obvious watching Mariota raise his game over the past three weeks (three straight 300-plus yard pass games with 10 touchdowns; 198 rushing yards and four scores) that he has the goods to be a standout playmaker as a pro.

In fact, I've been so impressed with Mariota's game that I decided to reach out to a few NFL executives for a little perspective on how they view his game at this stage of his career.

Vice president of player personnel for an NFC team: "The kid is the real deal. ... He has all of the tools that you look for in a franchise quarterback: poise, composure, confidence, arm talent and athleticism. ... I was very impressed with his accuracy and ball placement when I watched him in person (vs. Washington). He also showed good anticipation on his deep throws and looks comfortable making pro-like throws. ... I can't say enough about his speed and explosiveness as a runner, too. I know he is only a redshirt sophomore, but he looks like at top-five pick to me."

NFC South scout: "He's a real guy. ... He is more polished as a passer than I anticipated for an athletic quarterback. He can make every throw in the book with zip and accuracy, including the deep ball. Now, he still needs to work out some flaws with his mechanics, but I love his physical tools for the position. Plus, he is supposed to have great intangibles, which is what you want from a franchise-caliber quarterback."

NFC North scout: "It's too soon to make sweeping assertions about his potential as a franchise quarterback. He is athletic and does have some arm talent, but we haven't seen enough of him to determine if he can make big-time throws in a pro offense. I need to see more of him before I'm convinced he's an upper-echelon guy."

Jury still out on Florida's secondary prospects

There has been a lot of conversation about how the Gators' defensive backfield is loaded with elite NFL-caliber talent, but I believe we should slow down some of that chatter after taking a closer look at Louchiez Purifoy, Marcus Roberson and Jaylen Watkins. Although I definitely believe each player will play at the next level, I'm not convinced there is a shutdown corner in the group.

Sure, Purifoy and Roberson are potential starters in the NFL, but both have significant holes in their respective games that prevent me from fully endorsing their potential as No. 1 corners. Purifoy, listed at 6-foot-0 and 190 pounds by the school, is a gifted athlete with extraordinary physical tools, but he is an unpolished defender without a natural feel for the position. Although he exhibits good ball skills and makes a handful of spectacular plays due to his superior athleticism, Purifoy is so undisciplined in coverage that it's hard to envision him blossoming as a shutdown corner in the NFL. Speaking to an NFC college scouting director about Purifoy, the scout expressed similar concerns about his carefree game. He tabbed the junior standout as a "boom-or-bust" prospect with an "And-1 (streetball) game." He went on to say Purifoy is a "terrific athlete with some intriguing tools, but I don't know if he could play in a structured system."

Roberson is a more refined cover corner at this point of his career. He shows sound footwork and fundamentals in coverage; Roberson's technique looks straight out of a textbook. From his ability to play with proper leverage based on hash-split alignments to his sound approach to playing the ball in the air, Roberson succeeds because of his attention to details. However, I have some concerns about his physical dimensions (listed at 6-0, 195 by the school), athleticism and speed. With NFL receivers looking like NBA power forwards on the perimeter, I don't know if Roberson can thrive on the outside as a starter. He will have a tough time winning the 50-50 balls, which would make him a prime target for opposing quarterbacks. Talking to an NFC college scouting director about those concerns, he told me that he views Roberson as a "good player and sound technician, but I don't know if he has enough physical ability to make up for mistakes in coverage ... things will have to line up correctly for him to make plays at the next level."

Now, that doesn't mean Roberson can't make a contribution as a dependable nickel corner, but you typically don't draft slot corners on Day 1.

Watkins has been mentioned as an intriguing prospect, but I see an explosive athlete with unimpressive physical dimensions. Measuring 6-foot-0, 188, he is small by pro standards and projects as back-up/special-teams player at this point. Of course, those positions are critical on a 53-man roster, but those players aren't highly coveted commodities on draft day. Although Watkins is expected to test off the charts in workouts, it's hard for me to see him as anything more than a competitive back-up candidate at this point.

Things we learned
From Jadeveon Clowney returning to form to Florida State's complete dismantling of Clemson, here are the 38 lessons learned from the college football weekend. More ...

Heisman Trophy list

I'm not one of the distinguished voters for the Heisman Trophy, but that won't stop me from weighing in on which players are worthy of the award at the midpoint of the season. The honor is awarded to the most outstanding player in college football, but it has become an award that typically goes to the quarterback of one of the top teams in the country. Since 1989, a quarterback has walked away with the trophy 16 times, and 11 of the past 12 winners have been quarterbacks.

Although I don't subscribe to the theory that the trophy is a quarterback's award, I definitely believe a quarterback will keep the streak of dominance intact this season. Quarterback play has never been better in the college game, and it's apparent when looking at the ridiculous numbers posted by signal-callers this season. Just this week alone, we saw a quarterback rush for 300-plus yards (Jordan Lynch, Northern Illinois) and several quarterbacks top the 400-yard mark, including Michigan's Devin Gardner (503 pass yards with two touchdowns and 81 rushing yards with three scores) and Washington State's Connor Halliday (557 pass yards with four touchdowns and four interceptions). Those totals represent a tremendous one-week sample, but they pale in comparison to the production posted by the front-runners of the award, in my mind.

Here's my list of contenders for the honor, and why I have them ranked in this order at this time:

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1. Marcus Mariota, Oregon: The director of college football's most dynamic offense has totaled 28 combined touchdowns without a turnover. Mariota has done this with his arm and legs, while emerging as the ultimate dual-threat playmaker at the position. With the Ducks riding a remarkable seven-game streak scoring at least 45 points in each game, it's a no-brainer to put Mariota at the top of the list.

2. Jameis Winston, Florida State: Freshman quarterbacks aren't supposed to make the game look this easy, but Winston has A-plus arm talent and maturity that is beyond his years. The spectacular performance that he put on against Clemson (22 of 34 passes for 444 yards with three touchdowns and one interception) is not a surprise to observers who have watched him pick apart each of the Seminoles' opponents with surprising efficiency from the pocket. With 23 total touchdowns through six games, Winston is definitely making a big impression on the voting population that is fascinated by production.

3. Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M: The Aggies' losses have knocked them out of BCS national championship contention, but that should not detract from the sensational play of Manziel. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner remains an unstoppable force on the field, and his eye-popping numbers validate his status as the most dangerous playmaker in college football.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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