In its first season following the retirement of superstar Rob Gronkowski, the New England Patriots offense took on a whole new look in 2019 – and not for the better. The Tom Brady-led unit got off to a fast start, scoring 30-plus points in six of the season’s first seven games. Following Week 8, however, the once-dominant Patriots offense surpassed 24 points only one time.
New England was unable to replace Gronkowski’s size, athleticism and ability to stretch the field and looked like an entirely different team because of it. Given the circumstances, the front office is expected to explore its available options to upgrade the tight end position in 2020 and beyond.
In a free agency preview story on CLNS Media, Patriots beat reporter Evan Lazar highlighted eight tight end options that could be on the AFC East champions’ radar this offseason. One of which, Colts free agent TE Eric Ebron, may be a top target for New England in free agency.
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“According to a team source, the Patriots are expected to make a run at former Colts and Lions tight end Eric Ebron when the legal tampering window opens on March 16,” Lazar wrote on Wednesday.
Ebron, who turns 27 years old on April 10, is entering his seventh NFL season in 2020. He originally entered the league as a first-round pick (No. 10 overall) of the Detroit Lions in 2014. After being cut during the 2018 offseason, Ebron signed a two-year, $13 million deal with the Indianapolis Colts, where he caught 66 passes for 750 yards and 13 touchdowns in his first season in a new uniform – the best statistical performance of his career.
While the 6’4,” 253-pound Pro Bowler has struggled with drops at points throughout his career, Lazar believes Ebron’s best fit within the Patriots offense is as a mismatch in the passing game.
“Ebron isn’t known for his blocking, although his Colts tape the last two seasons wasn’t a complete waste of time in that regard,” wrote Lazar. “He can execute kick-outs and down blocks, but we shouldn’t expect him to be a focal point of the rushing attack. Ebron shines as a pass-catcher, where he’s got some serious burst and vertical speed for a tight end. Ebron is too fast for most linebackers and is dangerous running the seam. Even in the red zone, he can separate over the top due to his sudden acceleration of the line.”
Following the retirement of veteran TE Ben Watson, New England is left with only two players under contract at the position – 27-year-old Matt LaCosse and 24-year-old Ryan Izzo. The 2020 free agent tight end class is highlighted by some accomplished names including Austin Hooper, Hunter Henry, Jimmy Graham and Tyler Eifert. However, Ebron’s speed and athleticism at the position should still draw significant interest.
Spotrac currently lists Ebron’s market value at approximately $9.5 million annually, or the equivalent of a four-year, $38 million contract. With a projected $29 million in salary cap spend to work with, the Patriots will need to weigh the risk of a splash signing given the number and value of their own key free agents who still need to be addressed.
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