Entering free agency with virtually no cap space, it appeared the only way the Pittsburgh Steelers could acquire a tight end would be in the NFL draft.
But the front office mortgaged the future to win now, restructuring big-ticket contracts like those of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, defensive back Steven Nelson and center Maurkice Pouncey to secure a high-priority player: tight end Eric Ebron.
“[Steelers coach Mike Tomlin] told me he's been on me since I was a Tar Heel, and he's happy to get one of the guys he wanted out of college," Ebron told ESPN's Josina Anderson a week ago. "He said, being a defensive coach, he knows I'm hard to game plan against, and I'm excited to come."
Considering the Jacksonville Jaguars recently signed oft-injured tight end Tyler Eifert to a two-year deal reportedly worth $15.5 million, Ebron’s two-year, $12 million contract is a good deal for the Steelers.
More of a hybrid wide receiver than a traditional tight end, the Detroit Lions’ 2014 first-round pick brings a playmaking ability the Steelers need to maximize the championship window they hope opens upon Roethlisberger’s return from an elbow injury.
Through six seasons, Ebron registered 3,195 receiving yards and 27 touchdown receptions, 13 of those coming in 2018.
Ebron, who turns 27 in April, didn’t have a remarkable career with the team that drafted him No. 10 overall, his four-year tenure in Detroit marked by drops and injuries.
He found the right fit in Indianapolis after being released by the Lions in March 2018, settling in with then-Colts quarterback Andrew Luck for a monster season (66 catches, 750 yards, 13 TDs) and a Pro Bowl berth. His numbers tapered off last season (31 catches, 371 yards, three TDs) when the team leaned on the run game under quarterback Jacoby Brissett.
Often a liability as a blocker, Ebron played 30% of the offensive snaps in 2019, down from 56% the year before as Jack Doyle’s backup. His season ended early when he elected to have December ankle surgery, taking his team by surprise and straining relationships in Indianapolis.
In search of another fresh start, Ebron found a landing spot on a team that desperately needs him.
As one of only six tight ends to score more than 20 red zone touchdowns in the past five seasons, Ebron will immediately boost the Steelers’ major weakness from a season ago. Without Roethlisberger, the Steelers plummeted from first place in red zone scoring percentage in 2018 to dead last in 2019. The team managed to score in only 35% of their red zone trips.
Beyond that, Ebron’s presence stretches the field and gives Roethlisberger a deeper target over the middle -- something the Steelers haven’t had reliably since Heath Miller’s retirement in 2016.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Ebron averaged 9.4 targeted air yards, which measures how far downfield a player is being targeted on average. By comparison, Steelers tight end Vance McDonald averaged 4.6 targeted air yards in the same season. In 2018, Ebron averaged 9.9 targeted air yards to McDonald’s 5.7.
During his Pro Bowl season, Ebron accounted for 22% of his team’s deep passing attempts, as measured by Next Gen Stats' percent share of the team's air yards. McDonald’s measure was 7.85 in the same season.
Following a near-breakout season for McDonald in 2018, expectations were high entering 2019 for the 29-year-old tight end. But the Steelers targeted McDonald only 55 times, down from 72 a year before, and he finished with a disappointing 273 yards and three touchdowns. His yards per reception also dropped, decreasing to 4.7 yards from 7.9.
Despite McDonald’s decline in production, the Steelers picked up his option for the 2020 season. The compromise, though, came in the contract details. McDonald’s original contract came with a cap charge of $7.1 million in 2020. Instead, the Steelers renegotiated his deal.
In most cases with the Steelers, contract restructures don’t cost the player much -- if any -- money. The team simply converts the base salary into a signing bonus, giving the player more money up front and a lower game check. In McDonald’s case, the renegotiation keeps McDonald under contract through the 2021 season at discount.
The tight end was important enough to bring back, but a reduction in salary signals the Steelers believe he dropped in value after last season.
In all, the Steelers reduced McDonald’s salary by $1.6 million over the next two years.
The money helps offset Ebron's cost, and the Steelers' offense gets more potent at the position.