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Steelers Vertex: Examining the value of Eric Ebron

After one season with the Steelers, has Ebron shown he is worth the remaining year on his deal?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Since one of the most pressing issues facing the Steelers this offseason is how to handle the contracts of a number of players with large salary cap hits, we’re going to take this opportunity to break down the player statistics, salary cap implications, and play on the field to help determine what would be in the Steelers’ best interest. This has been the focus on our Steelers Vertex series over the past several weeks.

Starting off with the obvious choice of Ben Roethlisberger followed by Maurkice Pouncey, Joe Haden, David DeCastro, Stephon Tuitt, Steven Nelson, and Vince Williams, we have reached the final player given as an option, although we may have one more player in store for you. This week the focus will be on tight end Eric Ebron. So far the choices were players under contract for the 2021 season the Steelers need to consider if they are going to retain, extend, or release.

Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.

Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.

Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.

As stated above, the topic at hand this week is looking at Eric Ebron and making a case for what the Steelers should do in regards to his contract in 2021. With only one year left on his current deal, should the Steelers look to retain, extend, or release Ebron for this season?

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

Eric Ebron signed with the Steelers in 2020 for a two-year, $12 million deal. Before getting into the financials and salary cap implication, let’s take a look at how the stats played out for Ebron during the 2020 season.

Hoping to improve on their 480 yards and three touchdowns from the tight end position in 2019, Ebron flew past these numbers just himself. With 558 receiving yards and five touchdowns, it was the second most receiving yards by a tight end by the Steelers since Heath Miller.

The last season in which another player had more receiving yards at tight end was Vance McDonald 2018 season when he had 610 receiving yards and four touchdowns. Coupled with 423 receiving yards and two touchdowns from Jesse James, Steelers fans were hoping the combination of McDonald and Ebron could go over the 1000 yard marker like it had gone in 2018. Unfortunately, with a Vance McDonald being held under 100 receiving yards in 2020, it was pretty much the Ebron show when it came to the receiving aspect of tight end.

The most concerning part of a Ebron’s 2020 had to be his number of drops, which came to a total of seven according to Pro Football Reference.

A very interesting stat for Ebron came courtesy of Geoffrey Benedict on the Steelers Touchdown Under podcast when he pointed out that Ebron had his career high in snaps played in 2020. With 766 offensive snaps, Ebron’s next closest season was with the Detroit Lions in 2016 with 708 snaps.

As for the contract numbers, Ebron was given $5 million of his $12 million salary as a signing bonus in 2020. With a base salary of $1 million, exactly half of the Ebron’s $12 million was paid to him in 2019 while keeping his salary cap number down to $3.5 million. Unfortunately, by doing so Ebron has a cap number of $8.5 million for 2021. With $2.5 million in dead money, Ebron is due a base salary of $5.5 million for 2021 along with a $500k roster bonus due on March 22. Therefore, if the Steelers decided to cut Ebron, they would save $6 million against the salary cap. If the Steelers were to move on to save the $6 million, the bigger question is who would play tight end in 2021.

Another aspect of Ebron’s game which some fans complain about is his blocking ability as a tight end. For this, and the full breakdown of Ebron, it’s going to take looking at the film.

The Film Line:

Eric Ebron is knows as a pass catching receiver and not a good blocker, but the Steelers from the start made it clear that Ebron would have to be willing and competent as a blocker. For much of the season, he was.

Week 2, 1st quarter, 4:27. Eric Ebron is the tight end to the left side of the screen.

This isn’t a great win in run blocking for Ebron, but it is a win. He stops his man from penetrating by driving him into the linemen. It’s not anywhere close to being as impressive as what Kevin Dotson does on this play (guard to left side) but for a receiving tight end, it’s a good block on an outside linebacker.

Week 7, 2nd quarter, 4:40. Eric Ebron (#85) comes in motion from the right side of the screen.

Ebron lines up as the farthest outside receiver, then motions inside for this run. Ebron makes a great block on #54, linebacker Rashaan Evans, and is helps James Conner pick up 7 yards on the play.

Week 7, 1st quarter, 2:12. Eric Ebron is the tight end furthest to the left on the screen.

That first block is a good one, they have to secure Jadeveon Clowney and Ebron gets the job done, setting Chukwuma Okorafor up for an easy block. Ebron then peels off to get the linebacker, but prioritizing Clowney makes him a bit slow and the linebacker eludes him. After that Ebron wanders about looking lost. You would love to see him look upfield and go get the linebacker that comes in at the end of the play, but he’s not that guy. He’s not a natural run blocker, he can fulfill an assignment, but he doesn’t give you anything extra. Still give credit for that help on Clowney, this play gained 7 yards.

Later in the season it didn’t look as good. Through 12 games Eric Ebron had played the more snaps than he had in any season outside of 2016, when he was 23 years old, and I think it had a negative effect.

Week 13, 2nd quarter, 7:01. Eric Ebron is the tight end to the left side of the screen.

First off, he’s facing Chase Young there, that’s not an easy assignment. Ebron loses this badly to a high shove, he wasn’t losing those this badly earlier in the season. His blocking didn’t look good in other games around this time either.

As for the passing game. . .

Eric Ebron had one of the better receiving stat lines from a Steeler tight end since Heath Miller retired in 2020. He was brought in to give the Steelers something more from that position and he certainly brought it.

Week 5, 2nd quarter, 14:21. Chase Claypool is the receiver to the top of the screen, Eric Ebron is third from the top.

Watch the safety to the top of the screen on this play, and look at the cornerback to the top as well. That safety has Eric Ebron being covered by a linebacker in front of him, he can’t provide much help to the outside, and that means the outside corner can’t be as aggressive defending Chase Claypool. On a third and long the Eagles give up the sticks because Eric Ebron and Chase Claypool put that much stress on their deep coverage.

Week 7, 1st quarter 2:55. Chase Claypool is the second receiver from the top of the screen, Eric Ebron is third.

It wasn’t just Claypool benefiting either. This route combo has Chase Claypool running at multiple defenders, and the safety to the top completely ignored Ebron because of it. This is a quarters look, but with more of a diamond shape to it. Ben Roethlisberger sees the coverage and hits Ebron in the hole in the deep zone that he and Chase Claypool create.

When Ben Roethlisberger had time in the pocket, these route combos with Claypool and Ebron were deadly, when he didn’t have time to see which of his targets the defense was going to cover these throws disappeared.

That’s the unique strength Eric Ebron brought to the passing game, and you can see Ebron’s value because he can block linebackers in the run game and create stress on the defense on pass plays.

But it wasn’t all good.

Week 12, 4th quarter, 7:31. Eric Ebron is the second receiver from the top of the screen.

Heading into Week 12, Ebron had three drops on 56 targets. In weeks twelve through fourteen he would drop 4 of his 27 targets. This one on a slant and out combo with Chase Claypool that had been incredibly effective all season. Third and three and it’s a drop and a punt.

Week 13, 3rd quarter, 3:10. Eric Ebron is the third receiver from the bottom of the screen.

Here’s a catch from Week 13, look closely and you will see how exaggerated his catching motion is. His targets in these situations he seemed concerned about the hit coming, here folding forward to protect against a straight from behind hit on his back, and then just falls down instead of trying to gain more yards. He wasn’t doing that earlier in the season.

Week 13, 3rd quarter, 2:32. Eric Ebron is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

Here you can see his head turn, looking for the defense and he loses control of the ball. This shows up at the same time as his blocking woes where he seems to have lost a lot of strength in his torso.

It’s my opinion that Eric Ebron was playing through an injury. In Week 14, Ebron would play 37 snaps, at that point his season low, and the next week he would leave the game with a back injury. I think it was causing him problem for weeks before that game.

The Point:

The Steelers know for sure what was going on with Eric Ebron, and if they keep him it is probably because they expect to get play like he showed in the first half of the season. Through Week 8 Eric Ebron caught over 70% of targets thrown his way, from Week 9 onward that dropped to right around 50%. When the Steelers were running the ball well and Ebron was healthy he was a major weapon in Ben Roethlisberger’s arsenal. The second half of the season his play declined as the offense declined.

The Steelers will likely retain Eric Ebron at tight end for the 2021 season, his salary is similar to what C.J. Uzomah, Jesse James, and Nick Boyle are paid, and his value as a receiving tight end is at least as valuable as what any of those players offer. The Steelers will not find a good replacement for the money they would save by releasing Ebron. The question that remains is can the Steelers find a tight end to pair with Eric Ebron that can carry enough snaps to keep Ebron healthy through the season.

Past Vertex breakdowns: