PITTSBURGH – After a fairly sleepy start to free agency, the Steelers have kicked things into overdrive over the past 24 hours.
After agreeing to terms Thursday night with offensive lineman Stefen Wisniewski, the Steelers are now set to sign tight end Eric Ebron and trade for defensive lineman Chris Wormley, a source confirmed to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Ebron is coming in on a two-year deal worth $12 million, while the compensation for Wormley is a 2021 fifth-round pick headed to Baltimore (which will send back a seventh-rounder in the same draft).
With only Vance McDonald and Zach Gentry back at tight end from the active roster last year, Ebron fills an obvious need for talent, depth and experience. The 10th overall pick out of North Carolina in 2014, the 6-foot-4, 253-pound Ebron spent the past two seasons in Indianapolis after starting his career with Detroit. Ebron, who turns 27 next month, had a career year in 2018 with 13 touchdown catches and 750 yards but couldn’t duplicate it last season. He missed the final five games with an ankle injury and finished with 375 yards and three touchdowns on 31 catches in the Colts’ first run without Andrew Luck at quarterback.
When he faced the Steelers last year, Ebron had just two receptions for 16 yards on a season-low two targets. But before that game, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin talked up the Colts tight end tandem of Ebron and Jack Doyle.
“They have a unique vertical tight end,” Tomlin said, meaning Ebron, who ran a 4.6 40-yard dash at the 2014 combine. “They create matchup issues. We will have our work cut out for us there in terms of minimizing those guys. … We have had our issues with tight ends, those who are the vertical-capable and athletic-type.”
Ebron checks those boxes, though his time in Indianapolis ended with some uncertainty. The Colts – who signed him to a two-year $15 million deal in 2018 – expressed surprise when Ebron went on injured reserve last November.
Ebron himself posted on social media that his ankle injury had been bothering him all season, and that he’d hoped to delay surgery. But Colts coach Frank Reich was quoted as saying that the week before Ebron moved to IR that was the first he’d heard of it.
“Prior to that, really there were no problems with it as far as practice or playing,” Reich said. “Then when it flared up on him last week, it became a little bit of an issue so we ended up having to make the move we did.”
That was Nov. 25. Earlier that month, in the days after the loss to the Steelers, Ebron wasn’t shy to share his thoughts on not being involved enough in the offense, telling local media that Reich has an open-door policy, and he “kicked that door in.”
“I speak what’s on my mind,” Ebron added with a laugh. “You want to be that player your team wants you to be, and you want to be that player that you know you are.”
The next game, he got 12 targets – a season high by far – and caught five passes for 56 yards, but the Colts lost to Miami.
Last year wasn’t the first time Ebron struggled with his health. He missed eight games over his first three seasons with the Lions, who released him with one year left on his rookie contract. With McDonald coming off a disappointing post-breakout campaign of his own, the Steelers won’t want Ebron to go the route of their last notable free agent tight end, Ladarius Green. Green signed a four-year, $20 million deal in 2016 but ended up playing just 10 games with the Steelers because of a preseason ankle injury and late-season concussion.
Adding Ebron would seem to close the door on the return of Nick Vannett, whom the Steelers acquired from Seattle after Week 3 in exchange for a fifth-round pick in this year’s draft. Vannett had 13 catches for 128 yards last year in 13 games for the Steelers before hitting free agency.
As for Wormley, at 6-5, 300 pounds, he can play both at nose tackle or end in the Steelers’ 3-4 defense. The 2017 third-round pick out of Michigan played in all 32 regular-season games the past two years for the Ravens and started 13. Last season, he had two tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and six quarterback hits while playing 46% of the defensive snaps.
Wormley, a native of Toledo, Ohio, who grew up a Steelers fan, also started the Ravens’ playoff loss to Tennessee and played two-thirds of the snaps. Against the Steelers last season, he had five tackles in two games. Wormley’s biggest play of 2019 was batting away a fourth-down Jimmy Garoppolo pass to help set up Baltimore’s 20-17 win against San Francisco in Week 13.
“It was a great play,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said after the game. “Worm did a great job. I tell you what, this kid works so hard, just every single day. He’s a very serious guy. To make that play, and to see that reward, is really good.”