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The Steelers have one of the best tight end duos in the NFL

Looking at the tight end position heading into the 2020 season

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at New York Jets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers signed Eric Ebron to a 2-year $12 million contract this off season, giving the Steelers another athletic tight end to pair with Vance McDonald in 2020. The tight end position in 2018 was a strength of the Steelers, as McDonald and former Steelers Jesse James and Xavier Grimble recorded three of the top four yards per target on the team (JuJu Smith-Schuster ranked 3rd), and 21.6% of passing yards. That’s a substantial increase from 13.1% of yards in 2017 (when McDonald missed a lot of the season) and significantly worse efficiency. In 2019 with James off the team and Grimble hurt, the Steelers relied on in-season acquisition Nick Vannett and rookie Zach Gentry to play with Vance McDonald, and their impact plummeted, with the group accounting for 12.6% of passing yards. Tight ends accounted for right around 1/6th of passing touchdowns in all three seasons.

The Steelers investment in Eric Ebron should bring the percentage of passing yards to tight ends back up as the Steelers again have two quality tight ends at the top of the position.

The top two

Vance McDonald is a big, strong athlete of a tight end. He is a good blocker, and a good receiver. He isn’t the most technical player, his route running isn’t refined and his blocks can be sloppy at times, but his athletic ability consistently makes him a problem, as football is still a game where being bigger, faster and stronger counts for a lot. As a receiver he creates vertical threat with solid speed and his 6’4”, 260+ lb. frame. Coming out in 2013 he was a 2nd round pick in the then still growing SPARQ era of the NFL Draft, he put up 31 reps in the bench press with 34.5 inch arms while running a 4.69 forty.

McDonald is still that athlete after several injuries have cost him a lot of game time in his 7-year career, but he won’t be confused for a big time receiving threat any time soon, he isn’t a great route runner and he doesn’t have the most reliable hands, but with his strength, effort and athletic ability he’s still a good starting tight end, as long as he is on the field.

Eric Ebron is six years removed from being the tenth pick overall in the 2014 draft. He wasn’t a SPARQ standout, but he was fast for a tight end, with 4.56 speed at 6’4” and 250 lbs. Eric Ebron’s real strength was his route running and his hands. Ebron was solid in Detroit, but not the star they imagined when they used a top 10 pick on him. EBron was cut by the Lions and signed by the Colts where he had his best season playing for Andrew Luck, before an ankle injury and Luck’s retirement led to a disappointing 2019. The Colts released Ebron and the Steelers signed him.

Eric Ebron has consistently put up good receiving numbers over his career, in fact, since Ben Roethlisberger joined the Steelers a tight end has had 700+ receiving yards three times, while Ebron has done it twice since 2014. Ten of the 16 seasons since the Steelers drafted Roethlisberger, a Steeler tight end has gained 500+ yards, right around 2/3rds, the same rate Eric Ebron has recorded 500+ yard seasons, with only his rookie year and 2019 falling short. No Steeler tight end has recorded more than 8 touchdowns in a season, while Ebron had 13 when he played with Andrew Luck in 2018. Vance McDonald’s best season is 610 yards and 4 TDs, the best non-Heath Miller season since Eric Green was the Steelers tight end. Those numbers would rank third for Eric Ebron’s career in both yards and touchdowns.

Eric Ebron is a safe bet to match Vance McDonald’s production if both are healthy, and could challenge the best season stats for a Steeler tight end. The current records for a single season by a Steeler tight end are 76 receptions (Miller, 2009), 942 yards (Green, 1993), and 8 touchdowns (Miller, 2012).

The battle for the third spot

Zach Gentry was the Steelers 5th round pick in 2019. Gentry stands 6’8” tall, but his arm length and wing span are less than Vance McDonald and he isn’t much of an athlete for the position. Gentry saw a bit of action as a late-round developmental project, playing 49 snaps in 4 games, including 24 snaps in the Steelers week 4 win over Cincinatti when Vance McDonald was out. Gentry wasn’t much of a receiving threat, he was targeted only once, but at least he caught it for a 4 yard gain, but he did show promise as an in-line blocker, where he won more battles than he lost, and put a few very good plays on film. He is most likely the Steelers 3rd tight end, where he should have value as a blocking tight end to support McDonald on heavy run sets.

Kevin Rader was an undrafted free agent in the 2018 draft. The Youngstown State product isn’t very big or athletic for the position, and while his play in the 2019 preseason was solid, he has yet to appear in an NFL game, and since there hasn’t been much in the way of news about him out of camp, it is unlikely he has passed Zach Gentry on he depth chart.

Kyle Markaway was injured for the 2016 and 2017 seasons in college, and while he was granted a 6th year of eligibility by the NCAA, he chose to forego that and declare for the NFL draft. He went undrafted and joined the Steelers after a stint with the New York Giants. the only news out of camp is that he has disappointed in using the blocking sleds, which is not a good sign when your strength is supposed to be blocking. Markaway was also a heavy special teams player in college, and the Steelers don’t have any tight ends outside of their starter Vance McDonald that are special teams regulars on the team. That gives him an outside chance of making the practice squad, and could have provided a path to the actual roster if his play in camp had been above the line.

While I don’t expect it, Rader or Markaway could get a surprise roster spot largely due to special teams if the Steelers don’t trust Gentry in the area. The Steelers almost always have a decent contribution from tight ends on returns, and the only tight end with NFL experience doing that is Vance McDonald, and it was early in his career.

Expectations for 2020

The Steelers tight ends should be in-line to have the best season the Steelers have ever seen from the tight end position, it would take below-average years (or injuries) from at least one of the two, likely both to avoid being one of the most productive pair of tight ends in Steelers history.

Vance McDonald will be the number one tight end, his blocking and receiving are both above the line. Eric Ebron will provide a dynamic receiver at the position, while Zach Gentry will likely be a blocking focused player.

Both Eric Ebron and Vance McDonald are able to play split out wide or in the slot, with Ebron seeing heavy slot usage his entire career. Eric Ebron also brings a lot of skill to the major routes the Steelers like to run with their tight ends. Seam routes and wheel routes are good routes for both Ebron and McDonald with their speed, but Eric Ebron should bring a lot to the 12-20 yard in and out routes the Steelers run a lot from tight end. Those routes are tough for the defense, because a linebacker will struggle with the vertical routes, and they pair that with the threat of the in and out cutting routes in front of the deep safeties, making it hard for the defense to reliably pass off the tight ends to the safeties.

In 2018 those routes were open a lot for McDonald and Jesse James as defenses had to account for JuJu Smith-Schuster and Antonio Brown’s threat on underneath routes. With Roethlisberger returning at quarterback, Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson entering his second season, the dynamic of dangerous underneath receivers and tight ends attacking the deeper middle of the field should return as a main strategy in the Steelers offense.

The last addition to the difficulty in defending the Steelers tight ends is the drafting of Chase Claypool, his speed and size on the outside will draw attention from safeties, creating more stress on both the deep safeties and the linebackers tasked with covering the Steelers tight ends. A deep threat receiver with size on the sideline, a tight end going deep but slower than the outside receiver and strong yards after catch receivers underneath create a natural three level attack on the defense that is hard for any defense to account for without relying on man coverage.

The Steelers didn’t just fill a need with Eric Ebron this off season, they invested in having two tight ends that can create stress on the opposing safeties and linebackers in support of a deep group of wide receivers and a deep running back room with a lot of receiving threat. The Steelers have replaced an offense dominated by the superstar talents of Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell with a roster that is deep with mismatch creators, and the tight ends are going to be a big part of that equation.

Film Review

Some articles that cover tight ends in case you want to dig deeper.

From K.T. Smith:

Predicting the 2020 offense by personnel groupings, great article that talks about how the tight ends will fit in, and affect different formations.

New talent should help in the red zone offense in 2020, includes film on Eric Ebron’s red-zone excellence.

What Eric Ebron brings to the Steelers. K.T. Smith breaks down Ebron, a lot about his vertical threat, and also talks about the man from personal experience working with him.

From Geoffrey Benedict (me)

A film review of McDonald, Gentry and Ebron

Looking at the value of slot production and the Steelers struggles in 2019 (not a film room, but talks about the use of tight ends and backs in the slot and how effective it is in the NFL right now)

Other Position Breakdowns:
Offensive Line
Running Back