NFL Draft Round 1, 8 p.m. (ESPN, NFL Network)

UNC star tight end Eric Ebron to realize NFL dreams

acarter@newsobserver.comMay 7, 2014 

  • First options

    Eric Ebron could become the 23rd UNC player taken during the first round of an NFL draft:

     

    Year Pick Player Pos. Team
    20137Jonathan CooperGCardinals
    201328Sylvester WilliamsDTBroncos
    201216Quinton CoplesDEJets
    201114Robert QuinnDERams
    200929Hakeem NicksWRGiants
    200829Kentwan BalmerDT49ers
    20022Julius PeppersDEPanthers
    20026Ryan SimsDT Chiefs
    199920Ebenezer EkubanDECowboys
    19988Greg EllisDECowboys
    199817Brian SimmonsLBBengals
    199819Vonnie HollidayDT Packers
    199622Marcus JonesDT Buccaneers
    199328Thomas SmithDBBills
    198722Harris BartonT 49ers
    198515Ethan HortonRB Chiefs
    198428Brian BladosTBengals
    19812Lawrence TaylorLBGiants
    198118Donnell ThompsonDTColts
    19753Ken HuffGColts
    197122Don McCauleyRBColts
    19652Ken WillardRB49ers

    Source: ACC

— After Eric Ebron worked out for NFL scouts during his pro day at North Carolina, somebody asked how he felt about being invited to New York and what it might be like to be there at the NFL draft, live, to hear his name called.

“I started to think about how good I’m going to look on the stage when I’m walking up there,” Ebron said with a wide grin. “But no … (I) just couldn’t believe it. It was like, you know, dreams come true.”

The first part of his answer was classic Ebron – brash and cocky and served with a smile. Yet even the moment upon him has inspired some introspection.

Ebron’s longtime dream of reaching the NFL is expected to become reality Thursday night during the first round of the draft. He is projected to be selected early (early to mid-teens), though how high is unclear.

What’s more certain: There’s no shortage of teams interested in Ebron’s size and speed. At 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, Ebron possesses the prototypical frame of the more athletic tight ends who have helped revolutionize NFL passing offenses. He’s fast, too, and adept at shedding defenders.

Ebron, who gave up his final season of college eligibility to enter the draft, isn’t shy about talking about these things. Asked after UNC’s pro day what kind of feedback he has received from NFL scouts and personnel directors, Ebron said this:

“That they haven’t really seen talent such as mine, and they’re high upon me and the things that I’m able to do. And it’s nothing been negative. Everything’s been positive with every scout.”

That might be a bit of an exaggeration. Ebron set several school receiving records for a tight end and last season, as the centerpiece of the Tar Heels’ up-tempo spread offense, he caught 62 passes for 973 yards and three touchdowns.

That was good and Ebron seemed pleased by his production, but he fell well short of the 12 touchdown receptions coach Larry Fedora had said was Ebron’s goal. Ebron also dropped some passes, and sometimes he seemed more likely to make the spectacular catch instead of the routine one.

“There are holes in his game,” NFL draft analyst Todd McShay recently said of Ebron, according to ESPN.com. “He drops too many passes for how highly he’s going to be drafted.”

Ebron, in fact, dropped a couple during his pro day, though he didn’t seem too concerned.

“Everything went great,” Ebron said. “Two drops. No biggie. It happens. You know, Jerry Rice even drops passes. No, I’m just kidding.”

And there was that smile again. During his years at UNC, Ebron was known for his affable nature. He was, in some ways, a big kid – always smiling and joking – and Fedora and his staff rode Ebron hard.

Some of it likely was because they wanted Ebron to toughen up. Other times, Ebron’s coaches wanted him to maximize his potential.

Ebron will enter the NFL during a golden age for tight ends. Jimmy Graham, the New Orleans Saints’ tight end, led the league last season in touchdown receptions, with 16. Vernon Davis, the San Francisco 49ers’ tight end, caught 13 touchdown passes, and Julius Thomas of the Denver Broncos caught 12.

Athletic tight ends with an ability to line up wide and run longer routes have seemingly never been more valued in the NFL. And Ebron’s best quality is his athleticism, and his ability to play his position with the skill and agility of a wide receiver.

“He’s a pretty exciting player,” Fedora said in what seemed like an understatement. “He can make every play there is. He’s got unbelievable hands. He can catch the ball like a wideout, runs great routes, knows how to use his body.

“I mean, he’s got great body control in the air. All those things.”

Ebron said at his pro day during March that he had “no idea” where he might wind up. During a recent mock draft on ESPN.com, McShay sent Ebron to the Pittsburgh Steelers with the 15th pick. Mel Kiper Jr., another ESPN draft expert, consistently has projected Ebron as the New York Giants’ selection with the 12th pick.

Scouts also have questioned Ebron’s blocking ability. McShay, the ESPN analyst, has described Ebron as a “buffet blocker” – meaning he picks and chooses when he blocks.

Ebron, who wasn’t used much as a blocking tight end at UNC, disagrees.

“I definitely know I wowed them with my blocking,” Ebron said at his pro day. “Because most people say I can’t block, but I don’t think they’re watching the right tape.”

Regardless of where he winds up, at some point Thursday night the moment Ebron has been waiting for finally will arrive. After his pro day, Ebron thought about the first thing he’d do when he hears his named called.

I’ll “jump up out the chair,” he said, “fix my tie, and walk to that stage. And put on my hat. That’s the first thing I’m going to do. Ain’t no crying, ain’t no nothing.”

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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