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Former Tar Heels tight end Eric Ebron speeds to top of NFL draft class

Indianapolis North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron refused to proclaim himself the top tight end in the 2014 NFL draft class, but he certainly hinted at it plenty on Thursday.

On the first day of the NFL Scouting Combine, Ebron, widely considered a lock for a top-20 pick in May’s draft, acknowledged he has no control over how the draft plays out. But he has an idea how it should.

“In my mind am I the top tight end? I don’t know,” Ebron said. “But should the draft play out that way? In my mind, yeah, it should.”

At 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, Ebron has the look of a starting NFL tight end. Since Tony Gonzalez revolutionized the position more than 15 years ago, the position has demanded less blocking and more speed and pass-catching ability.

That works in Ebron’s favor.

“I think the game now is more to the two tight end sets than it’s ever been about a fullback,” said New York Jets coach Rex Ryan, whose team holds the 18th overall selection and is in need of pass catchers for second-year quarterback Geno Smith.

“Some teams don’t even have a fullback now. So you’re looking for guys who have that combination – size and speed guys, basketball players if you will. Guys that have the size, strength and bulk to block as well.”

Ebron knows the biggest knock on his play is his blocking skills. He caught 62 passes for 973 yards and three touchdowns in 2013 and was named first-team All-ACC.

North Carolina coach Larry Fedora’s spread offense didn’t always need Ebron to block in the run game, but his Tar Heels teammates at the Combine said when the time called for it, he blocked well.

“He’s gifted with the body of a linebacker,” former Tar Heels quarterback Bryn Renner said. “He can go across the middle and catch it and he can block you and get under your chin. He’s very physical. He doesn’t get enough credit for how physical because we didn’t put him in the box with his hand down a lot.”

Another criticism of Ebron is that he was rarely pressed by defenders at the line of scrimmage in college. He often ran he routes uninterrupted, and he knows that will change at the professional level.

But a confident Ebron gave a reasonable answer as to why he had so many free releases in college.

“I think why teams don’t press me is because they can’t,” he said. “I will not be pressed at the line. That’s just my state of mind.”

According to CBSSports.com, Ebron is the No. 1 tight end in this year’s draft class and the 14th-best prospect, and a strong Combine performance could bump him higher. Where Ebron is perceived to be lacking – blocking and being pressed – won’t be tested in Indianapolis, and his speed and strength will.

Ebron will run the 40-yard dash Saturday, and though he said he’s “a bit faster” than the other tight ends, he declined to say what his timed goal is.

He did, however, publicly set the bar at 4.53 seconds – the time former North Carolina running back Giovani Bernard clocked at last year’s Combine.

“I’m going to run a faster 40 than he did, we’ll just put it like that,” Ebron said.

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9
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