Predicting what the New England Patriots will do on draft day can be a really frustrating exercise. When you have a man in charge who has no time for what the rest of the league thinks, who will trade up (twice in 2012!) or down at a moment’s notice, the possibilities are endless. This year is no different.
But amidst all those endless possibilities lies one prospect who every single Patriots fan across the globe knows, admires, and wishes to be on their team: North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron.
The general assumption is that there is no way the college star would make it to #29. And they’re right. As things sit now (barring catastrophe), there is no way Eric Ebron makes it to the 29th pick.
But that doesn’t mean, with a madman like Bill Belichick at the helm, that the Patriots couldn’t wheel and deal their way up to him.
Why He’s A Fit
Pardon the hyperbole, but Eric Ebron is a freak of nature. He’s bigger, stronger, and tougher than any wide receiver. He’s faster, quicker, and brimming with more big-play potential than any tight end. He has big strong hands and leaping ability to make tough catches. With the ball in his hands, he’s a nightmare to opposing defenses.
His measurables are downright unfair. At the combine he stood 6-4, 250, and seems to have added some more bulk since then. He ran a 4.6 40 (insane), 24 reps at the bench press, a 32-inch vertical, and a 10’0 broad jump. His tape is also mighty impressive, as he set school records in his senior year for receptions (62) and receiving yards (973), adding on 3 TDs for good measure.
There are two big concerns that get repeated about Ebron. One is that he’s not a great blocker, and was rarely used as a traditional in-line blocker. Lucky for the Patriots, they have a fella by the name of Rob Gronkowski who’s a great blocker in his own right. If the Patriots were to draft Ebron, they’d want him as a flex “Joker” end, to be a constant mismatch in the open field, and chip in a block every now and again, therefore not a problem in the slightest. Even if Gronkowski misses the beginning of the 2014 season, Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan are all excellent in-line blockers.
The second, and more concerning, were his drops in North Carolina. Ebron had an 11.43% drop rate in 2013, and dropped three passes in his Pro Day. That’s an awfully high number. But after going through his game tape (I’ve watched a lot of Ebron’s tape), they seem more like lapses in concentration rather than poor hands (in fact I’d say he has some of the best hands in the draft). While that’s not ideal, it is something that can be fixed over time with the right coaching (something the Pats have in spades).
Ebron wouldn’t have to be the No. 1 target immediately in New England, and take time to develop his unmatchable tools at the tight end position. He’s rough around the edges, but he’s a special player, no doubt about it.
But what would it take to get him?
Here’s where things get messy. In a league featuring a growing handful of tight end stars, Ebron is in high demand by a lot of teams, all of them picking ahead of the Patriots. The Bills (#9) are desperate for playmakers. The Giants (#12) have already shown interest in him, and could use an upgrade at that position. The Steelers (#15) need to find a replacement for Heath Miller sooner rather than later, and Ben Roethlisberger would welcome an athlete like Ebron with open arms. Geno Smith and the Jets (#18) need receivers ASAP. The Cardinals (#20), Packers (#21), and Chiefs (#23) would almost certainly jump on him should he fall.
Jumping 20 spots in the draft, from the outset, seems impossible. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that the Patriots wanted to trade with the Steelers for #15. Objectively, using the traditional Draft Value Chart, the Patriots would need to give up their 1st, their 2nd, and their 3rd round picks to move up the 14 spots. That’s really pricey, especially with such a strong draft class in the 2nd-3rd rounds.
The Patriots could conceivably trade a future pick, but that would be wildly uncharacteristic for the front office (and something they usually take advantage of other teams doing). Also, with a bevy of players set to hit the free agent market next season (Wilfork, Revis, McCourty, Gostkowski, Solder, Vereen, Ridley, Mallett, Cannon), it’s hard to imagine them taking any chess pieces off the board a year early.
Still….it could be done.
Who would the Patriots be missing out on?
And here’s where things get messier. Having Ebron would be huge for the Patriots offense but let’s be clear: a second tight end isn’t exactly the top need for the team at the moment.
Before Vince Wilfork asked to be released from the team, the need for a stout defensive tackle was huge. After? It’s downright glaring. As it stands, a Tommy Kelly/Seaver Siliga pair is fine, if not overwhelming, but is severely lacking in upside. The obvious fit in this draft class would be Louis Nix III, who’s not just a Wilfork clone in body, but seems to have much of the same personality that immediately endeared him to New England fans. But he’ll be gone by the beginning of the 2nd round. Same goes for Florida State’s Timmy Jernigan, Minnesota’s Ra’Shede Hageman, and Pittsburgh’s Aaron Donald. There are some potential mid-round players worth considering (Dominique Easley, DaQuan Jones, Caraun Reid), but it’s a definite drop-off talent and impact-wise.
The other big need is an interior lineman. The status-quo move is for teams to focus on these types in the later rounds, but this year there are some terrific Day 1/Day 2 prospects. At guard, Xavier Su’a-Filo and David Yankey seem like they could step in Week 1 and immediately provide an upgrade over Dan Connolly. And at center there are fantastic options: Bryan Stork (Florida State) and Travis Swanson (Arkansas) were dependable leaders on their respective teams, while Weston Richburg (Colorado State) and Marcus Martin (USC) are brimming with upside.
Add in the need for a defensive end to ease pressure on Chandler Jones/Rob Ninkovich, a linebacker who specializes in coverage, and even a running back, and it’s hard to swallow losing those two picks this year.
But if not Ebron, then who?
The good news is that this year’s class does have some intriguing tight end choices. Jace Amaro and Austin Seferian-Jenkins have fallen out of the first round discussion in most scouts’ eyes, but would have a ton of value at #62. CJ Fiedorowicz and Troy Niklas are more traditional in-line blockers who could be around in Round 3, that could be seen as redundant next to Gronk, but, hey, anything helps. There are also three later-round options that could all be intriguing options as a “move” tight end, giving the Pats some of the flexibility that Ebron would supply.
The first is a bit of a twist: Oklahoma’s Trey Millard. Available somewhere in Day 3, Millard spent his time in college as a veritable Swiss Army Knife: the team captain saw time at tight end, running back, h-back, fullback, and receiving out of the slot, showing promise as a receiver, and supplying plenty of power and speed as a runner. The 6-2, 247 Millard would be a bit of a project, only because he’s never played tight end full time, but his versatility would be a huge boon to the team.
The second is a familiar name to everyone: Oregon’s Colt Lyerla. He’s just as if not more an athletic talent than Ebron, who has the size and power of a tight end, but the speed and agility of a wide receiver. His vertical, 40, and broad jump at the combine were astounding, and showed both the lower body explosion to make him a red-zone threat, but also the tools to make him a monster in the middle of the field. While not the best blocker, he’s more than willing to throw his body around and, like Millard, was used at different points in the offense. Lyerla is a first-round talent, but he’ll be available on Day 3. Why? Because there are several questions about his character that have yet to be answered (at least as far as we humble fans know). Lyerla’s arrest for cocaine possession, his sudden departure from Oregon, and his misguided (to say the least) tweets about the Sandy Hook shootings will take Lyerla off of most teams’ big boards. His team interviews could make the difference: if he shows both contrition about his actions and the strong desire to play football (that many questioned), he could be the steal of the draft, and a great fit in the New England offense.
The third is a player who’s impressing more and more as the offseason progresses: Utah’s Jake Murphy. The 6-4, 252 lb junior has the body of an in-line blocker, but shows the most promise as a receiver out of the slot, where he played quite a bit in 2013. Murphy had 58 rec. for 766 yards and 9 TDs since 2012, and showed off his soft hands (that measured at 10”) and strong hand-eye coordination. While there were questions about his athleticism, they have all faded away after the combine. Murphy had the fourth best 3 Cone time (7.18), the second best 20-yard shuttle (4.27), and the fifth best vertical (33.0) amongst tight ends. Again, he’s a great fit for the Patriots offense, and reminds some scouts of a Dennis Pitta type player. While not bursting with the same tools as Ebron or Lyerla, he’s a dependable, later-round option that could pay big dividends.
I don’t know. I’m torn.
Ebron is a one-of-a-kind athletic talent. He has his issues, but they’re fixable. And, in fact, he’s a better fit across from Gronkowski than he is with most other teams, as New England wouldn’t have to rely on him as an in-line blocker. There’s also the (very strong) argument that 2015’s tight end draft class isn’t nearly as strong as this one’s (Devin Funchess, Nick O’Leary, and who else?). If there was ever a year to take a swing on a tight end in the draft, it’s this year.
But the price is really hefty. To trade up for Ebron would mean that the Patriots would have to be 100% confident that they could patch their other holes in the later rounds of the draft, a tough bet to make.
The best choice would obviously be to do what the Patriots do best: wait and see. If Ebron somehow falls into the early 20s, by all means they should trade for him. But if he’s taken early as expected, Belichick has an endless series of contingency plans.
We may not know what will happen. But at least we’re in good hands.