eric ebron again2

Eric Ebron is the best tight end in the 2014 draft. That’s not an adventurous statement, or a particularly bold one. At this point, it’s been accepted as fact.

Ebron has all the numbers and measurables we typically associate with the modern day behemoth tight end, standing 6’4″ and weighing 245 pounds. Like the Jimmy Grahams and Rob Gronkowskis of the league, he’s also versatile. When speaking to reporters at the scouting combine Ebron said he lined up away from the line of scrimmage roughly 40-percent of the time during his final year at the University of North Carolina, and he sometimes shifted into the backfield as an H-back too.

All that resulted in 62 catches for 973 yards. Or visually, this…

But here’s the next question we’re set to wrestle with: is he really, honestly on the same level as Vernon Davis, or Jeremy Shockey in his Giants prime? Because that’s the draft territory Ebron could be preparing to enter.

Ebron’s specific draft value right now varies, as every valuation does during these turbulent April times. But as the leader of what should be a strong tight end class — so strong that 2014 could be the first year we see two first-round tight ends since 2006 — his projections have been soaring particularly high. Like top 10 high, which just doesn’t happen.

Or more accurately, it rarely happens. As in only twice over the past 15 years.

Yet right now Ebron getting slotted into the top 10 has become increasingly common here in mid April. Today our very own David Woods gave him to the Bills at No. 9, which is the popular choice of the masses. Of the five mocks at CBS, three of them have Ebron heading to frosty Buffalo, and the three latest updates at NFL.com say the same. It’s an educated guess (as all mocks are) that’s difficult to argue with given Ebron’s aforementioned stats that pop, his speed and ability to line up throughout the formation, and the Bills’ need for a top talent at the position.

Each year and each draft class is its own different animal, with needs and roster holes in a constant state of motion. But there’s still a general baseline in play for certain positions. For example, guards aren’t valued as highly and wait until later in the first round to be selected, and the wait for centers is even longer with only a few exceptions.

Here’s the history Ebron is fighting at his position. Over the past 15 years, 13 tight ends have been selected in the draft’s opening round, and only four have cracked even the top 20. That also includes three years with no tight ends in the first round at all.

2013: Tyler Eifert (21st overall)

2012: none in first round (Coby Fleener was the first tight end selected at 34th overall)

2011: none in first round (Kyle Rudolph was the first tight end selected at 43rd)

2010: Jermaine Gresham (21st)

2009: Brandon Pettigrew (20th)

2008: Dustin Keller (30th)

2007: Greg Olsen (31st)

2006: Vernon Davis (6th), and Marcedes Lewis (28th)

2005: Heath Miller (30th)

2004: Kellen Winslow Jr. (6th)

2003: Dallas Clark (24th)

2002: Jeremy Shockey (14th)

2001: Todd Heap (31st)

2000: Bubba Franks (14th), Anthony Becht (27th)

1999: None in first round (Reggie Kelly was the first tight end selected at 42nd)

Often the recent change in tight end usage is traced back to the 2010 draft, when Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, and Aaron Hernandez entered our lives (Hernandez has since exited in disgrace). Graham and Gronkowski have combined for 7,118 career receiving yards, with Gronk representing nearly half of that despite missing 16 games over the past two years. They’ve also scored a pretty stupid 83 touchdowns.

Yet they weren’t even first-round picks, with Gronk dropping all the way down to 42nd due to injury concerns that have since been justified, and Graham going untouched until 95th overall at the tail end of the third round.

Due to breaking and Graham’s inexperience, those two may be unique examples of recent tight end value in far later rounds. But consider: of the top 10 tight ends by receiving yards during the 2013 season (all but one had over 700 yards), five were drafted in the fourth round or beyond, only two were first rounders, and Tony Gonzalez was the highest at 13th.

That’s the company Ebron could join as a top 10 pick if the Bills pounce, and the Lions one slot later have also expressed interest. He’d stand alongside Vernon Davis (a comparison made often) and few others, and he’d be doing it during a draft when other high-end talent like Austin Seferian-Jenkins or Jace Amaro could be available 10 picks later, and likely much further than that. He needs to separate himself from not only history at a position where draft discounts are aplenty relative to performance, but his peers too.

If he does both of those things, Ebron could rise to elite draft status in 22 days.