“He ends up coming up to me and was like, ‘Hey, you know, Ben Roethlisberger, I’ve been a fan of yours for a long time,’” Ebron said on a conference call Thursday. “I just chopped it up with him about it.”
Ebron also told Roethlisberger he was soon to be a free agent. Three months later, the two became teammates when the Steelers signed the former Indianapolis Colts tight end to a two-year, $12 million contract.
“I just told him, ‘Yeah, I’m a free agent, I don’t know where it’s headed,’” Ebron said. “He was excited about it. Maybe he pulled a string or two, who knows?”
For the 26-year-old, the opportunity to play for a storied franchise and with another elite quarterback was too good to pass up. Ebron began his career with the Detroit Lions and Matthew Stafford and followed it up with a season of Andrew Luck in Indianapolis. When Luck suddenly retired last season, Ebron's role in the offense was reduced as the Colts leaned on the run game.
With Roethlisberger, Ebron hopes to re-create the chemistry he found with Luck in the 2018 season, where he earned his first Pro Bowl nod with 13 touchdowns and 750 receiving yards.
“If I could be Big Ben’s best friend, kind of like how it was with Andrew,” Ebron said. “I was always in his ear, in his pocket, just trying to figure out the game through their lens.
“They’re elite minds at this level and it’s just, I just want to understand his language, understand his view from his focal point on how things are with the playbook. ... I just ask him questions about anything right now, just trying to get to know him and start early.”
Adding Ebron gives Roethlisberger a consistent red zone threat and a receiving target over the middle. Ebron is one of only six tight ends to score more than 20 red zone touchdowns in the past five seasons -- a welcome addition for a team that ranked dead last in red zone scoring in 2019. Ebron also has 3,195 career receiving yards and 27 touchdowns.
Mike Tomlin didn’t get into specifics of Ebron’s role when the two talked, but the Steelers' head coach told him he would be used in a way that maximizes the best of his abilities.
General manager Kevin Colbert had high praise for Ebron in a conference call with reporters Tuesday.
“When he was healthy, he really did some nice things, especially the year he had,” Colbert said, referencing his 2018 Pro Bowl season. “He had Andrew Luck playing with him. There’s definitely athleticism, there’s red zone production, there’s run after the catch. He’s really a premier kind of receiving tight end for this league when he’s healthy.”
Ebron admitted Thursday that he’s not 100% following his December ankle surgery. Ebron said he injured his ankle on Aug. 3, and he played with the injury until late November. Though some accounts of the situation say Ebron’s decision to have the surgery frustrated the Colts and took them by surprise, Ebron says everyone was aware of what was going on.
“That was simply my choice for my health standpoint and it leaned upon nobody else,” Ebron said. “... I was hurt, and nobody likes to play hurt.”
Ebron said he timed the surgery so that he would be fully healthy by the start of the next football season.
He’s ready to get to Pittsburgh, for what he anticipates will be the “easiest transition” he has probably had because he knows so many of his new teammates like James Conner, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Joe Haden and former North Carolina teammate Ryan Switzer.
In six seasons in the NFL, Ebron has played in four playoff games -- winning only one of them. To Ebron, the Steelers give him the best opportunity to maximize his potential during the prime of his career.
“I hate losing,” he said. “I just want to finally win. I just want to do something big. I feel like it’s time. It’s a reason why we all play this game. It’s to win, and to win Super Bowls. I just feel like it’s time.”