In a year in which the Pittsburgh Steelers were projected to enter the new league year over the salary cap, it is somewhat impressive that they managed to place the franchise tag on an edge defender and sign or trade for four players outside of their organization, including bringing in one free agent on a two-year, $12 million contract.
By average annual salary, that is tied for the third-largest deal the Steelers have ever given to an outside free agent on their first contract, behind Joe Haden’s three-year, $27 million deal in 2017 and the three-year, $25.5 million contract agreed to with Steven Nelson last year. It is tied with Mark Barron’s deal, which was also two years, $12 million, agreed to last season.
The new face, of course, is Eric Ebron, the former first-round draft pick of the Detroit Lions who had a Pro Bowl season working with Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts in 2018. He caught 66 passes for 75 yards and 13 touchdowns that year, but his numbers in 2019, working with Jacoby Brissett and through injury, were much worse.
Nonetheless, the Steelers have largely been lauded for the signing, which is relatively low-risk given that the bulk of the cap hit is in 2020, which could effectively make it a one-year. He has a $3.5 million cap hit for 2019, and would also count for $2.5 million in 2021 if released before the next season. If they take that route, it would essentially be a one-year, $6 million deal with a cap hit spread out over two years. They would save $6 million against the cap for 2021.
But they don’t plan on doing that, or expect to, anyway. They believe they got a good player who will contribute to their success, potentially on a long-term basis, as a big-time receiving threat at the tight end position the likes of which they haven’t had before.
Bill Barnwell of ESPN named the signing one of the nine best of the offseason, in fact. He had previously given it a B+ grade, and has since included it among deals such as Tom Brady’s and Ndamukong Suh’s. “This is a good risk/opportunity for the Steelers”, he writes, “and it’s shocking that tight end-needy teams such as the Patriots didn’t compete here”. It was reported that the Patriots were interested.
Ebron comes to the Steelers with Vance McDonald returning for a fourth season, his eighth overall. Both had career-best seasons in 2018 followed by quarterback- and injury-related downturns last season.
At least on paper, they could pair up to form the most dynamic and accomplished receiving duo at the tight end position in franchise history. With only an average group of wide receivers until proven otherwise, they could see more work than the Steelers ordinarily give to the tight end position in the passing game. That is, after all, why Ebron was signed. To catch passes.