NFL.com is running through its annual training camp preview and provided some interesting commentary about what they see as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ biggest position battle. Author Nick Shook highlighted the tight end competition between Vance McDonald and Eric Ebron.
“Pittsburgh expects grand things from the pairing of Eric Ebron with Ben Roethlisberger…Essentially, this is a battle to be the Steelers’ TE1 of the next couple seasons. Ebron, who is three years younger, might have a leg up — but he’ll have to prove it on the field, starting with training camp.”
Ebron certainly wasn’t signed to come in to block but the idea of a “battle” between him and McDonald feels kinda moot. Neither player is going to be the full-time tight end, unless there’s an injury that forces the team’s hand. Regardless of who gets listed first on the depth chart, both players are expected to play around half the snaps. McDonald in a more traditional, in-line role, with Ebron as the newer age flex tight end.
If both can play 500 snaps, it’s a win for the Steelers. It’ll reduce injury risk, let each guy play fresh, and hide some of their weaknesses like Ebron’s blocking and McDonald’s diminishing returns once he gets past the 600 snap barrier (as the team found out last year).
Certainly, they’re counting on both men boosting the Steelers’ pitiful 2019 red zone offense that ranked last in the league. Getting Ben Roethlisberger back is the biggest component in seeing those numbers rise but Ebron was a red zone machine in 2018 with the Colts. He caught 12 red zone touchdowns over the past two seasons in Indy.
Shook’s mention of the future of the position is notable too. It’s possible 2020 could be McDonald’s last season if he struggles again and Ebron’s contract is structured to be on-and-done if need be. He would follow a line of recent free agents – Jon Bostic, Morgan Burnett, Mark Barron – to leave as quickly as they came. Pittsburgh has opted against drafting a tight end high for over a decade, last taking one in the top three rounds in 2007 when they selected Matt Spaeth. It would be wise for them to invest through the draft sooner than later.