INDIANAPOLIS — Rob Gronkowski. Tony Gonzalez. Kellen Winslow Sr.
When compiling a collection of the greatest tight ends in NFL history, you’d be hard-pressed to keep any of those names off the list.
Gronkowski is perhaps the greatest all-around tight end in league history. A ferocious blocker, he caught 521 passes for 7,861 yards and 79 touchdowns before retiring earlier this offseason at the age of 29. He’s sure to be joining Gonzalez and Winslow in Canton in five years.
Gonzalez, who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2019 in August, has the most receptions (1,325), receiving yards (15,127), 100-yard receiving games (31) and second most touchdown receptions (111) as a tight end in NFL history.
Winslow, a 1995 Hall of Fame inductee, amassed 541 receptions for 6,741 yards and 45 touchdowns in just nine NFL seasons. Had he not been so affected by knee injuries, his numbers certainly could’ve rivaled Gonzalez’s.
So what’s the relevance to the Indianapolis Colts, you ask?
Two words: Eric Ebron.
Ebron, of course, had a record-breaking first season with the Colts in 2018; but as it turns out, it was just the latest quality year for the North Carolina product, who continues to put up numbers at a historic career pace.
In fact, through his age-25 season, Ebron has logged 252 receptions for 2,820 yards and 24 touchdowns. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, he is just one of four tight ends in NFL history to put up those kind of numbers prior to their age-26 season.
The others on that exclusive list? Rob Gronkowski, Tony Gonzalez and Kellen Winslow Sr.
Ebron, who was the 10th-overall pick by the Detroit Lions in the 2014 NFL Draft, spent the first four years of his career in Detroit, where he played in 56 games and compiled a respectable 186 receptions for 2,070 yards and 11 touchdowns.
But Ebron simply took off after being signed as a free agent by the Colts last offseason.
Thriving in head coach Frank Reich’s tight end-friendly offense, Ebron logged single-season career-bests in receptions (66), receiving yards (750) and receiving touchdowns (13), while he also added a rushing score. He had eight receptions for 77 yards and a touchdown in Indy’s two postseason contests.
Ebron not only earned his first-career Pro Bowl selection in 2018 (and, of course, he caught a touchdown pass in that game, too), but he broke Dallas Clark’s single-season team record for TD receptions by a tight end. His 13 receiving touchdowns also led all NFL tight ends in 2018 and tied for the second-most among all players in the league, while his 14 total touchdowns tied for fifth in the NFL.
Too fast to be adequately covered by linebackers and safeties, and too big to be draped across the middle by cornerbacks, Ebron quickly became a favorite target of quarterback Andrew Luck in Year 1 in Indianapolis.
“I feel like I always have the mismatch,” Ebron told reporters on May 7. “I feel like I always can win against any opponent."
So what’s the next step for Ebron in Year 2 with the Colts? Perhaps not surprisingly, he has his sights set high.
“I believe Gronk still holds the record for the most touchdowns, which is 17,” Ebron said, referencing Gronkowski’s NFL single-season tight end record of 17 receiving touchdowns set back in 2011. “So if I want to do anything that is going to be real spectacular or anything that is going to be really good, I’ve got to go get 17. And if I go get 17, then what do I do? I help my team win games.
“I did that, proved that and I feel like if I’m at my best then I feel like this team will be at their best.”
Ebron also assuredly wants to keep the likes of Gronkowski, Gonzalez and Winslow within his sights as far as his career pace is concerned.
As a point of reference, Gronkowski (2015), Gonzalez (2002) and Winslow (1984) combined to average about 63 receptions for 870 yards and seven touchdowns in their age-26 seasons. That’s about four receptions for 54 yards per game and a touchdown catch nearly every other week.
"Obviously, we hope for big things again from Eric and we’re counting on him in a big way," Colts head coach Frank Reich said on Tuesday. "I give Eric a lot of credit for what he did last year and count on him big time again this year."
So what does Ebron have in store for his age-26 season? He’s excited to figure that one out.
“What can I do to elevate myself?” he said. “What can I do to elevate me physically, mentally? That’s the next step.”