The position I’ve spent the most time on this offseason is TE, and the player atop my TE rankings is Eric Ebron. There’s an awful lot to like about him. But there are some criticisms out there that lead many to question his place atop this year’s TE class. I’ve been thinking about them, and while I’m not dismissing them, I’d like to try casting them in a different light. I think you’ll be surprised by the findings.
Catch Rate Objection
The most frequent knocks against Ebron are that he drops the ball too much, and that he’s a poor TD producer in the red zone, for a TE. Pretty much every conventional scouting report mentions one or both of these items. For the record, I’m not criticizing that analysis. It’s right as far as it goes, and if we’re evaluating Ebron as a conventional TE, both are legitimate concerns.
But in the spirit of “re-calibration“, let’s evaluate him not as a “traditional TE”, but as what his usage suggests he is, which is a hybrid WR/TE. Here’s what I mean:
Go ahead, start with the catch rate column. Ebron trails the other top TEs from this year’s class. But look at the two far right columns, particularly yards/catch. His YPT is a yard greater than the next closest, and his YPC is more than 20% higher than anyone except Troy Niklas, who, interestingly, also has a low catch rate. Ebron’s YPC and YPT suggest WR more than traditional TE. When we evaluate WRs, we have an understanding that players with a high YPC – players who “stretch the field” – will have a lower catch rate than “possession” receivers, who catch passes closer to the line of scrimmage. Traditionally, TEs catch the ball closer to the line of scrimmage and thus have higher catch rates. But that’s not Ebron’s game, so why evaluate him on that criteria?
As an experiment, I applied some WR logic to Ebron. I used the receiving data collected at Football Study Hall, and filtered all the college receiving data from 2005 to 2013 by yards per catch, for players with more than 50 targets in a season. I found 247 players with a YPC within a half yard of Ebron’s.
As a group, their catch rate was 59.4%, which is just below Ebron’s career catch rate. So I could interpret the data like this: Ebron has an acceptable catch rate based on his yards per catch.
This concept becomes even more clear in the following table. I went back through those 247 players and pulled out the players with the very best eventual NFL performance. First sit down. Then take a look:
|Player||College Catch Rate||College YPC||College YPT|
So when you compare Ebron to WRs with similar YPC and YPT, he certainly holds his own. I don’t really hear any complaints about “drops” or “catch rate” with any of these receivers, so since Ebron is getting targeted and making catches at similar thresholds, should we really be worried about his catch rate? I think not. I think his catch rate is perfectly fine for what he does. Justin Blackmon’s 75% catch rate is pretty amazing, but it’s also the outlier. Look at Alshon Jeffery, Calvin Johnson, and Demaryius Thomas; their collegiate catch rates were worse than Ebron’s, and it hasn’t hampered them at all in the pros.
Touchdown Rate Objection
Next I did a very similar exercise, but this time I looked at red zone touchdown rate (RZTDRT). This data comes from the excellent College Receiver Stat Filter. Here’s how Ebron compares to the other top rookie TEs:
|Player||RZ TGT||RZ Yds||RZ YPT||RZ TDs||RZ TDRT|
OK, he definitely trails the field. He doesn’t look like a red zone closer. But let’s compare Ebron’s RZTDRT to WRs instead of TEs:
Red Zone TD Rate
|Player||RZ Tgts||RZ Yds||RZ YPT||RZ TD||RZTDRT|
|Odell Beckham Jr.||19||86||4.5||2||10.5%|
This set of players is a little different. It includes many of the same WRs I used in the first section of this article. It also includes the higher profile 2014 rookie WRs and some notable young NFL WRs who had similar RZTDRTs in college. Once again, Ebron more than holds his own. His RZTDRT is right in line with what you should expect from a big WR.
Hopefully I’ve laid waste to any lingering doubts you have about Ebron’s viability at the next level. When viewed through the lens of his likely usage, his catch rate and RZTDRT are in line with what we expect from top receiving prospects.
Is it fair to evaluate Ebron as a WR though? Two quick examples to show that the answer is “yes.” First, go ahead and plug his measurables into the Freak Calculator, a tool which projects a WRs ability to score TDs at the NFL level. Ebron scores a 79 (out of 100), which is a very solid score. For reference, Andre Johnson is an 82, Cordarelle Patterson 81, and Donte Moncrief and Michael Floyd are both 78.
Second, I asked Jon Moore to run Ebron through the Phenom Index machine. Ebron’s age-adjusted production gives him a WR Phenom Index score of 1.1. That’s 10% above average for a WR, and in the same neighborhood as guys like Jason Avant, Riley Cooper, Cecil Shorts, Austin Collie, Emmanuel Sanders, Terrance Wiliams, and Mike Wallace. Not hall of famers, but very good receivers. Is he a perfect TE? Maybe not. Is he a WR? No. But I think he’s a really good TE who plays like a good WR, and that makes him a really, really good prospect.