His smile was abruptly neutralized. His eyebrows suddenly stopped jumping above his eyes. He leaned in, expressionless, and listened to the words as they shot out of the reporter’s mouth as fast as he could run the 40-yard dash … How much do teams ask you about your blocking skills?
He thought about what to say, and then as his eyebrows furrowed, pointing straight at the bridge of his nose, he fired back: “They ask a lot. You know, every team wants a complete tight end, an all-purpose tight end. Not just one that can run down the seam and catch passes. They want a guy that can block too. I tell them I have been working hard on it, which I have, and that I’m not bad at it, which everyone thinks.”
It was late February at the NFL Scouting Combine, and Eric Ebron — tight end No. 6 — was at the podium, answering questions about his blocking skills. It’s a skill questioned by many, and Ebron wanted to clear the air. He wasn’t bad at it; he was still learning how to be good at it. There’s a difference, depending on who you ask.
Depending on who you ask, it didn’t matter whether he was a good or bad blocker. As long as he could run the seam and catch passes, he was fine. Teams told him they valued blocking skills, but many have H-Backs that spend an inordinate time in the slot, where they’re not doing much blocking unless a screen is thrown or an outside run is called. And when they’re called on to get in-line, they’re hardly setting the edge against 290-pound ends.
For teams that have complete tight ends, they’ve learned that it takes their offense up a notch, giving it a versatility visible the second the tight end steps on the field. It changes how the defense reads and reacts to the offense. It makes them think a second longer about a possible running play. That second could mean a slow reaction or an extra box defender or base defense, giving the offense a clear numbers advantage. That’s why it’s vital to seek out a complete tight end or one that has the potential to be complete, like Ebron.
The North Carolina tight end is viewed as an H-back like everyone else nowadays. He spent time in the slot, doing damage to defenses underneath and in the middle of the field. He ran all kind of routes and made all kind of catches, which is great. But he has the talent to separate himself from the other one-dimensional tight ends who are coming into the league or are already there. He just hasn’t put it all together yet.
Sometimes his pads are too high up, making it hard for him to drive blockers back. When he does try, he doesn’t always use choppy steps and power through with his lower body. He doesn’t always extend his arms or balance his weight, occasionally falling forward like a penguin on ice. He doesn’t always sustain blocks either, sliding off them. Here’s an example.
He’s in-line to the left on third-and-1. Outside, to his left, is a Miami Hurricanes linebacker standing at a 45-degree angle, expected to set the edge on an obvious running down. When the play begins, the Tar Heels call a downhill run away from Ebron, but he still needs to hold up at the point of attack. He needs to ensure the back-side linebacker doesn’t make a play down the line.
He engages. At first glance, his pads are low, his knees are bent, and his weight is forward. His hands, however, are very low. They’re at the linebacker’s abdomen, making it hard for Ebron to sustain the block should the linebacker attempt to run around the edge.
As the play goes on, his weight starts coming too far forward. He’s well over his heels, and he can no longer balance his chiseled 250-pound frame. The linebacker sees this and moves outside like he’s going to run around the corner, pushing Ebron down at the same time and focusing on the ball-carrier. Ebron falls hands first (2:32).
Sometimes he sets the edge like a blocking tight end does, not like a pseudo tight end blocking. He widens his feet and bends his knees, creating a firm base in the lower half that makes it hard for defenders to latch off his block. He drives defenders back with pure power. He keeps his feet moving on an outside block, directing the ball-carrier where to go by the direction his shoulder pads are facing. Here’s another example.
He’s flexed on third-and-5. Three yards off the line, he’s expected to make a block in space on the Pittsburgh Panthers’ linebacker that’s standing to his left. This is commonly a difficult job for college tight ends because it requires concentration, patience, technique, and activity. On this play, Ebron has it all.
He takes one step outside and locks his elbows out, making first contact with the linebacker. His pad level is high at first, but it gets lower when he bends his knees. He moves his feet and looks to get to the defender’s outside shoulder, hoping to seal him inside and give the running back a clear lane outside. He turns his hips to his left and uses his left arm to hold the defender back, allowing him to get to the outside shoulder and turn his back to the sideline. He’s done it. He’s sealed an alley for the ball-carrier, but the ball-carrier was tackled by a quick-hitting safety, which isn’t his fault. (4:32)
Going into May’s draft, there’s a strong chance Ebron’s going to be a first-round selection, if not top 15. He has the talent to live up to that billing. He’s physical, he’s strong, he’s athletic, and he’s fast. He has potential to not only be a good pass catcher, but a good blocker too.
In a league that’s suddenly placed a high value on one-dimensional tight ends, Ebron can stand out like he did at the podium in February.