Even with a limited amount of salary cap space, the Pittsburgh Steelers still managed yesterday to dole out what is tied for the second-largest first contract they have ever given to an outside unrestricted free agent signed during the initial period of free agency based on per-year salary, signing tight end Eric Ebron to a two-year deal worth $12 million.
This ties the two-year, $12 million contract that they gave to Mark Barron in March a year ago. Barron, released by the Los Angeles Rams, was technically a street free agent the way Joe Haden was when they signed him in August of 2017, but the latter did not come during the free agency period at the start of the league year. The largest contract was also given out last year, the three-year, $25.5 million contract signed by Steven Nelson.
Ebron, a former first-round draft pick now on his third team as he heads into year seven, comes to the Steelers with warts, to be sure. He drops about 9-10 percent of the catchable passes that come in his direction, which is not a small issue. He has an injury history, including an ankle injury a year ago that ended his season five games early and required surgery.
If he didn’t have these issues, however, he would be making Austin Hooper money, as Bill Barnwell points out for ESPN. He gave the Steelers a B+ grade for the signing, saying that “a healthy Ebron is an upgrade on both [Vance McDonald and Nick Vannett] as a receiver” and calling it “a nice under-the-radar move for Pittsburgh in a rare foray into free agency”.
The signing was actually the Steelers’ third of the offseason, having previously signed fullback Derek Watt to a three-year deal worth around $10 million, and offensive lineman Stefen Wisniewski to a two-year deal worth nearly $3 million.
“A healthy Ebron gives the returning Ben Roethlisberger an upper-echelon athlete with a large catch radius”, Barnwell writes. “The Steelers can move Ebron all over the formation to try to create mismatches, which should allow Pittsburgh to leave McDonald inline when they work out of 12 personnel”.
Vannett was acquired via trade three games into the 2019 season to serve as the number two tight end behind McDonald after Xavier Grimble was injured. Even though they gave up a fifth-round pick for him, and seemed interested in retaining him, he remains unsigned as an unrestricted free agent.
The only other tight end of note on the roster is Zach Gentry, a 2019 fifth-round draft pick. Despite having only two other tight ends on the 53-man roster, he was a healthy scratch for 12 out of 16 contests, yielding a total of 49 snaps and catching one pass.