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NFL free agency rumors: Patriots reportedly expected to make a run at former Colts, Lions tight end Eric Ebron

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Related: Patriots free agency outlook: New England needs to re-tool its tight end group

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

A big reason for the New England Patriots’ offensive struggles during the 2019 season was the team’s inability to properly replace tight end Rob Gronkowski after his retirement in late March. Ley by offseason acquisitions Matt LaCosse and Benjamin Watson as well as second-year man Ryan Izzo, the Patriots’ tight end group finished the year with just 40 combined catches for 457 yards and two touchdowns. It also was inconsistent in terms of blocking.

There is no way around it: upgrading the position has to be a priority for New England this offseason, and free agency seems like a good place to start. Even with the Los Angeles ChargersHunter Henry a likely candidate to receive the franchise tag this week, some solid options are expected to become available when the market opens. One of them is former first-round draft pick Eric Ebron, who apparently has a prominent spot on the Patriots’ radar.

According to a report by CLNS Media’s Evan Lazar, New England is “expected to make a run” at the 26-year-old once the league’s so-called legal tampering period starts on Monday, March 16. Given their struggles at tight end in combination with the fact that a) Henry will likely not be available, and b) the Atlanta FalconsAustin Hooper might be out of the team’s financial reach, pursuing Ebron makes sense from the Patriots’ perspective.

After all, the former first-round draft pick brings considerable upside and experience as a pass catcher to the table. Ebron may be coming off a rather disappointing campaign — he registered just 31 catches for 375 yards and three touchdowns before being placed on injured reserve in late November — but he is only two years removed from the best season of his career: in 2018, he caught 66 passes for 750 yards and a position-high 13 scores.

A six-year veteran who started his career with the Detroit Lions, Ebron would instantly make the Patriots’ aerial attack better: he has tremendous speed and acceleration for a player his size (6-foot-4, 255 pounds), and is a serious threat in the red zone and down the seam that knows how to beat man-to-man coverage with his burst and physicality. He would be suited to fill the role as the team’s number one tight end previously held by Gronkowski.

Of course, Ebron is far from the blocker the future Hall of Famer was. He is also no liability in this area, though. New England might therefore be able to use him in more than just a receiving role, and instead rather as a complementary piece alongside the other players at the tight end position — be they returning veterans LaCosse and Izzo, or potential early-round draft targets such as Notre Dame’s Cole Kmet or Dayton’s Adam Trautman.

All in all, Ebron appears to be a solid free agency option for New England. That being said, money will obviously be a deciding factor when it comes to the Patriots making a push. The team is projected to have only around $29 million in salary cap space available and will need parts of it to re-sign quarterback Tom Brady. Ebron, meanwhile, is projected to earn as much as $7.5 million per year on a new contract.