With one hand you can count the truly game-changing tight ends. Jimmy Graham is the obvious, followed by Rob Gronkowski (when healthy) and at times Vernon Davis and Jason Witten. There's a new group of tight ends, paced by Jordan Cameron and Julius Thomas, poised to be considered among the very best.
North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron could quickly find himself in that group. Ebron possesses a high level of athleticism for a tight end. To take advantage of his speed and agility, North Carolina often split Ebron out wide or put him in the slot. Because of how he's lined up, there are natural doubts about Ebron as a blocker. While it's an area he needs to get better, he's good enough (particularly considering how a tight end is used now in the NFL).
Blocking: Ebron isn't quite as behind as a blocker as some make him seem. North Carolina liked to split Ebron out wide, but he stayed in-line a fair amount. Ebron doesn't have the functional strength to overpower defensive ends at the line of scrimmage. But he can do enough to slow his man down and moves well in space. Although he's not always technically sound as a blocker, Ebron often his his hands inside to maintain a block.
Hands/After the catch: At times, Ebron's hands are faulty. A ball will hit off his fingertips or he'll let one into his pads and it will bounce away. But it doesn't happen quite enough to question Ebron's hands. He'll often extend out from his frame to make a difficult grab. He's capable of making the circus catch look routine. Has shown good concentration to follow the ball in the air instead of anticipating getting hit. There are times, however, where Ebron will look to get up the field before pulling the catch in. High points as good as many wide receivers.
After the catch is what separates Ebron from other tight ends in the class. With the ball in his hands, he's fast, physical and elusive. He can be hard for front seven defenders to catch from behind.
Release: For whatever reason, a lot of teams didn't try to jam Ebron at the line of scrimmage with a linebacker. While Ebron's speed and quickness gets him off the line smoothly, a good linebacker should be able to jam him at the line. Doesn't take wasted steps at the line of scrimmage.
Route running: As a route runner, there are some areas where Ebron needs to get better. He needs to snug up his breaks to take better advantage of his plus agility. Ebron can cut on his route just as well as any tight end in the draft this year, but he'll often round off giving defenders space to disrupt timing or make a play on the ball. Working up the seam, Ebron really shows off his speed. If there's not a jam at the line, he can simply right past most linebackers and safeties to get open over the top. Is particularly dangerous on shallow drag routes because of his speed.
Speed: At the NFL Scouting Combine, Ebron had one of the fastest 40-yard dash times at 4.60 seconds. More importantly, he plays up to his timed speed on the field. Ebron isn't a build-up speed player. Once he has the ball in his hands, he's moving at top speed and will pull away from some defenders. Speed can really get shown off on play-action. Ebron can fake a block and get up the field in space.
Final word: With Ebron, there is a lot to like. He's a speedy tight end with big play ability. He fits the mold of the modern tight end. But that's not to say he's without flaws. Ebron's hands at times are questionable and he's not a finished product as a tight end. But his speed and athleticism trump any concerns and make Ebron the best tight end in the 2014 NFL Draft.