It’s difficult to envision 18 franchises passing on a talent like North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron during the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft. But for the Miami Dolphins, who hold the No. 19 overall pick, Ebron falling in their lap might not be the pipe dream it may seem.
After dropping several passes during his pro day at Chapel Hill on Tuesday, scouts and draft gurus have begun grumbling about Ebron’s hands. To be fair, it’s not a new concern. Ebron too often dropped the routine play in the ACC, which was perplexing considering his knack for reeling in spectacular one-handed grabs and tough passes in traffic.
According to Rotoworld’s Josh Norris, Ebron dropped a troubling 11.43 percent of his targets in 2013. That alarming statistic coupled with Tuesday’s underwhelming showing could induce some doubt in the minds of the 18 clubs selecting ahead of Miami. And a little doubt could go a long way in an offseason where over-analyzing may become unavoidable with nearly two extra weeks to ponder prospects.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that new GM Dennis Hickey would swoop Ebron up at pick No. 19 if he were to slide. With voids at right tackle, guard and running back remaining, the Dolphins might not conclude they have the luxury of the nabbing the top player on the board.
Although the need for a complement to Charles Clay isn’t as pressing, make no mistake, a playmaker like Ebron is what the Dolphins are missing in many regards. Former offensive coordinator Mike Sherman‘s unit finished a respectable 11th in red zone efficiency last season, but benefited from several significant run-after-catch scores that were the product of suspect tackling and/or poor coverage. Those plays weren’t an indictment on the Dolphins, but won’t be realistically duplicated in 2014.
With a relatively small set of wide receivers and a tight end in Clay who is effective but plays smaller than his 6-foot-3 frame, the Dolphins, more specifically quarterback Ryan Tannehill, would benefit from a large-catch radius pass catcher who is capable of plucking the football in close quarters. Said description is synonymous with Ebron.
At North Carolina, Ebron displayed the athleticism and ball skills needed to catch the football at its highest point in tight coverage. That ability to win the jump ball battle is something none of the Dolphins’ current pass catchers can likely provide on a consistent basis.
But Ebron’s red zone prowess isn’t the only attribute that would make him such an alluring pick for the Dolphins. As good as Ebron is in tightly-contested situations, he may be even better in space. As a smooth glider, Ebron separates from coverage with ease and is dangerous after the catch with the breakaway speed to take a short-to-intermediate reception the distance.
Ebron didn’t time as well at the combine as San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis did coming out of college, but comparisons are valid. Like Vernon, Ebron has the athletic ability of a wide receiver but the size of prototypical tight end.
As for his tendency to drop passes, Ebron must work on maintaining concentration on every target. Developing a dependable pair of hands isn’t a an unrealistic ambition for him, however. Not when he’s continuously flashed the ability to make spectacular catches away from his body and when surrounded by multiple defenders while absorbing hits. If he can make the seemingly impossible reception, he’s capable of making the routine ones consistently.
And unlike many pass catching tight ends, Ebron isn’t an inept blocker. He exhibited impressive physicality and effort in-line for the Tar Heels and has the potential to develop into a solid blocker at the next level.
Ebron’s upside is surpassed by few prospects in this year’s draft class. In an increasingly pass happy league, the tight end position has gained value in recent seasons thanks to matchup nightmares like the aforementioned Davis, Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski. Ebron, being too fast for most linebackers and too big and strong for most defensive backs, could be poised to join that elite company.
The Dolphins will undoubtedly seek a talent with very few flaws to be their first-round pick, but it’s Ebron’s one major blemish that could make him available. If Ebron is still on the board after 18 selections, the Dolphins should thank his suspect hands, then hope those hands improve by making him the pick.
Cody Strahm is a Miami Dolphins contributor for Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter @CodyJStrahm.