Eric Ebron Can Revive His Fantasy Football Relevance With the Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers have completed a few moves this offseason, but they made an abnormal splash signing tight end Eric Ebron to a two-year deal worth $12 million.
Ebron comes off a down year with the Indianapolis Colts in which he didn't live up to the hype without Andrew Luck and played only 11 games due to an ankle sprain. A year after posting a career-high 13 receiving touchdowns and 14 total (one rushing), Ebron only found the end zone only three times in 2019 with Jacoby Brissett and Brian Hoyer under center.
His new quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, is coming off an elbow injury that kept him sidelined for 14 games last season, but he's a year removed from tossing 5,129 yards and 34 touchdowns.Ebron didn't impact the winning percentage for fantasy owners or the Colts in 2019, but we could see Ebron go back to his old ways with a healthy Roethlisberger.
Instant Impact of the Ebron Signing
The Steelers' offensive talent pool lies with JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner, who are both coming off a disappointing 2019 campaign. Both are certainly in the same boat as Roethlisberger and are destined for a better season if fully healthy.
With an elite defense that ranked fifth in yards per game (304.1) and tied for fifth in points allowed per game (18.9), the scoring and time of possession should increase for a Pittsburgh offense that missed Big Ben drastically. Quarterbacks Devlin Hodges and Mason Rudolph started and replaced each other multiple times in 14 games, throwing 18 touchdowns and 17 interceptions with Connor (4 games) and Smith-Schuster (6 games) each missing time.
As for Ebron, he had eight deep targets, six red zone receptions, and held a 73.8% true catch rate in 2019 with two newcomers at quarterback. An offseason to gain a rhythm and bond with Roethlisberger will go a long way, as Vance McDonald has been Big Ben's largest target to catch passes in the red zone the past two years. In 2018, Ebron ranked third in the league with 12 red zone receptions and led all tight ends in receiving touchdowns (13), hog rate (18.6%), end zone target share (35.6%), and end zone targets (16).
McDonald's stock takes the hardest hit of all Steelers with the Ebron signing, but he was always a short-term option for Pittsburgh. His first season was a learning experience, and in his last two with Pittsburgh, he recorded 88 receptions, 883 yards, and 7 touchdowns over 30 games.
As a team, the Steelers had the eighth-most drops in the league with 20, and McDonald accounted for four as the only tight end to drop a pass on the roster. He finished with the second-highest drops behind wide receiver Diontae Johnson's six. One of the only negative aspects of the Ebron signing is that he had five drops last season himself and tied with Jared Cook for the most drops among tight ends. He was also tied for the third-most among all players in 2018 with nine.
Even so, Ebron has caught 47 or more passes in four of his last five seasons and found the end zone 28 times compared to the 22 touchdowns that five different Steelers tight ends have scored since 2015.
With Andrew Luck in 2018, Ebron had career-highs in receptions (66), targets (110), yards (750), and receiving touchdowns (13) over 16 games. Ebron caught 60% of his targets and had the fourth-most targets of any tight end in the league. His 13 touchdowns were tied with Davante Adams, trailing only Antonio Brown's 15 among pass catchers.
Playing with Matthew Stafford for 16 games in 2017, Ebron finished top-15 in receptions (53), yards (574), yards per game (35.9), touchdowns (4), and first downs (30) among all players. In 2016, he missed three games with a knee strain but put up better numbers in less action. He finished top-10 among all pass catchers in receptions (61), yards (711), yards per game (54.7), first downs (37), and receptions of 20-yards or more (9).
But without Luck in 2019, Ebron's numbers weren't nearly as glorious, as he posted his second-lowest totals across the board in receptions (31), targets (52), and yards (375). His ankle sprain that sidelined him the last five games was something that bothered him from the beginning of the season. However, a mere 2.8 receptions on 4.7 targets per game makes it easy to think his time in Indy was dwindling once Luck announced his retirement and the Colts were out of the playoff race -- the marriage was over.
Over his career, Roethlisberger hasn't had a tight end with the size and speed that Ebron brings, and their relationship should thrive in the red zone where Pittsburgh ranked last in the NFL with a 35% touchdown rate with 20 yards or less to go. The Steelers ranked 30th in passing yards (276.8) and 27th in points per game (18.1) without their franchise quarterback. Ebron will likely be a top-three option at all times in this Pittsburgh offense, and in 2018, Roethlisberger targeted his tight ends 111 times of 675 attempts (17.6%).
With a top-10 quarterback in Roethlisberger, Ebron can flourish and be a safety blanket for the backyard style of play that makes Big Ben so special when healthy. Ebron should have a much better season if we see something to the effect of Big Ben's 2018 output.
FantasyPros tags Ebron as a TE18, but I'd peg him in the 10-12 range as long as No. 7 is under center. Expect Ebron to put up better numbers than Jonnu Smith, Jack Doyle, and Michael Gesicki to name a few tight ends with higher draft day projections.