The Pittsburgh Steelers don’t often take big dips into the free agency pool—by and large, that has often been because they can’t, because they don’t have the salary cap room. This year could be different. Steven Nelson in 2019 is the only unrestricted free agent they have ever signed during the primary free agency period to a deal worth more than $6 million per season.
They have signed two others to $6 million APY deals, though. Mark Barron lasted one year into his. Eric Ebron, the former Pro Bowl tight end, finished his out, but not exactly in style. While he had a solid 2020 season, he spent a good chunk of last year on the Reserve/Injured List, and in the build-up to that, he was gearing up to take a back seat to rookie Pat Freiermuth.
Chances are his price tag is going to dip, but it stands to reason that the veteran may be looking for a more attractive opportunity when he hits the open market again. Ebron, who recently confirmed that he is now healthy, will be an unrestricted free agent next month. And Brooke Pryor of ESPN sees him as the Steelers free agent most in need of a change of scenery:
Ebron entered Steelers training camp as the No. 1 tight end, but rookie Pat Freiermuth built a strong connection with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and supplanted Ebron as the top tight end target by midseason. Ebron, set to be a free agent, had a career-low 18 targets in 2021, down significantly from 91 in his first year with the Steelers. After a season-ending knee injury on a touchdown against the L.A. Chargers in Week 11, Ebron spent the majority of his rehab with his family away from Pittsburgh. Ebron has the talent and athletic ability to be a receiving threat, but to return to his 2018 Pro Bowl form, he needs a fresh start.
Ebron will only turn 29 in April, so he still has plenty of legs left under him. He is capable of producing in a functional offense, as he showed in 2020 with a 56-558-5 stat line that year. Last season, though, he only caught 12 passes for 84 yards and one touchdown (plus another rushing, on which he injured his knee, ending his season).
With Freiermuth going into his second season looking like the real deal (he caught 60 passes for 497 yards and seven touchdowns) and Zach Gentry finally developing, the Steelers have no pressing need at the tight end position. They even have Kevin Rader as a number three option, who is a capable blocker and can contribute on special teams.
Still, there have never been any indications that there are any issues in their relationship, perhaps beyond Ebron wishing that he could play more snaps. Given the likelihood that he can find a better playing opportunity in free agency, though, I wouldn’t expect him to be back.