Pittsburgh — Eric Ebron, the Steelers’ new tight end, has played with two of the top quarterbacks in his six years in the NFL — Matthew Stafford in Detroit and Andrew Luck in Indianapolis.
Now he gets to play with Ben Roethlisberger, and he couldn’t be more thrilled.
“I always loved Ben Roethlisberger,” Ebron said. “Ben has always willed his way to greatness; he’s won Super Bowls, he’s played through injuries. You see what kind of person Big Ben is when you watch him.”
Ebron, who signed a two-year, $12 million contract with the Steelers in free agency, met Roethlisberger at a spiritual conference with the players’ association in January.
“It kind of struck me that he was someone I would love to play with,” Ebron said Thursday on a conference call with Pittsburgh-area media. “I didn’t know I would have that opportunity at the time. It’s pretty cool that it’s actually going to happen.”
He said he is already texting with Roethlisberger because he is not able to work out with him.
“If I could be Ben’s best friend, kind of like I was with Andrew; I was always in his ear, in his pocket, just trying to figure out the game through their lenses,” Ebron said. “They’re kind of elite minds at this level. I wanted to understand his language, see from his view, his focal point, how things are with the playbook. Just try to get to know him. I’m already missing time with Ben.”
It’s one of the reasons he signed with the Steelers, who intend to pair him with tight end Vance McDonald and give Roethlisberger another target when he returns to the field.
“It’s kind of an opportunity to play with an elite quarterback and that’s where it led me,” Ebron said.
“It’s the Pittsburgh Steelers. I feel like it’s one of those iconic historic organizations that, if you’re lucky enough to play for and get an opportunity, of course you don’t turn it down.”
Ebron (6-foot-4, 253 pounds) played in only 11 games, starting two, with the Colts in 2019 because of a nagging ankle injury that bothered him since training camp. He eventually went to the Colts in late November and told them he was not going to play anymore because of the injury.
Ebron, 26, said he is still not 100% recovered from the injury. Because of the league restrictions prohibiting players from visiting other organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic, Ebron had to have his ankle examined and “cleaned out” by an independent doctor near his home in Houston. He has not been examined by the Steelers medical personnel.
“All I know is I’ve had the injury since Aug. 4 and I played through an injury till the time I said I couldn’t do it any longer,” Ebron said. “It was simply my choice from my health standpoint. I made that choice. I went and told them I was making that choice a week before I made that choice. It’s not my job to explain the story. I was hurt. Nobody likes to play hurt.”
Then he added, “If the season started today, I don’t think I’d be able to 100% perform. But we don’t play today.”
Ebron had 31 catches for 375 yards and three touchdowns last season, numbers that paled from his 2018 season with the Colts when he posted career highs in catches (66), yards (750) and touchdowns (13).
But, similar to what Steelers receivers experienced last season without Roethlisberger, Ebron did not get to play with Luck in 2019 because the former Pro Bowl quarterback retired.
Ebron was the 10th overall pick by the Lions in the 2014 draft and has 283 catches for 3,195 yards and 27 touchdowns in six NFL seasons.
“When he came out (from North Carolina), we really liked Eric, but we knew we had no chance to draft him back then,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. “He’s a super-talented, pass-receiving tight end. He had some injury issues last season, but when he was healthy, he did some nice things the year he had Andrew Luck playing with him. There’s definitely athleticism, there’s red-zone production, there’s run after the catch. He’s really a premier kind of receiving tight end for this league when he’s healthy.”
The Steelers feel much the same way about McDonald, that he is a quality NFL tight end who can make plays — when he is healthy. But, with Ebron, the Steelers can go back to employing a two tight-end system that they got away from last season, mainly because they didn’t have an adequate replacement after losing Jesse James in free agency.
What’s more, the Steelers think they have two tight ends who can make plays down the seam, not just sit in the zone.
“Mike Tomlin pretty much told me he was going to put me in the best possible situation to succeed and that’s all I needed to hear — that he believed in my abilities and things I can do and know I do them better than most people,” Ebron said. “If he puts me in those positions to succeed, and fulfill that, there’s no other thing you want as a player who is coming into the prime of my career.”