An offseason of rebuilding the support staff around quarterback Matthew Stafford culminated Thursday night when the Detroit Lions selected North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron with the 10th overall pick in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft.
The Lions ignored obvious defensive needs, bypassing immediate help at cornerback or safety, to take the draft's consensus No. 1 tight end. But while Detroit needs a more consistent effort on defense next season, the organization's goal all offseason has been to get Stafford fixed—both in terms of the coaching he receives and the players surrounding him on offense.
Taking Ebron at 10—an aggressive move in terms of drafting tight ends—stays true to the plan.
It all adds up to the potential of Stafford producing a big-time bounce-back season in 2014.
Almost every big move Detroit has made since January has centered around reviving Stafford.
The Lions sacked defensive-minded head coach Jim Schwartz in favor of Jim Caldwell, a noted offensive teacher who has worked with Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks, such as Peyton Manning and Joe Flacco. Caldwell's career includes 10 years with Manning as a quarterbacks coach and head coach in Indianapolis, and two as Flacco's position coach and offensive coordinator in Baltimore.
Caldwell then filled out his staff with the likes of Joe Lombardi and Jim Bob Cooter.
While not big names around the league, both Lombardi and Cooter have worked extensively with a few of the game's best quarterbacks. In New Orleans, Lombardi spent two years as an offensive assistant and another five years as Drew Brees' quarterback coach. He'll bring the Saints' attacking offense to Detroit.
Only 29 years old, Cooter worked with Caldwell in Indianapolis before spending the last two seasons in Denver as an offensive assistant. He worked extensively with Manning, helping to prepare game plans and scout opposing defenses, per Jeff Legwold of ESPN.com. Cooter will be Stafford's quarterback coach in Detroit.
On the personnel side, the Lions signed Golden Tate—one of the more underrated receivers in the game—and re-signed Joique Bell, ensuring the NFL's best running back tandem would return for 2014.
Stafford now has an embarrassment of riches around him.
Calvin Johnson is coming off a year that consisted of 84 catches, almost 1,500 yards and 12 touchdowns. Those numbers could be considered "down" for the generation's most dominant receiver.
Tate might have the best hands in all of football, and few receivers are better after the catch. As a No. 2 receiver behind Johnson, Tate could explode in his first year in Detroit.
Stafford's two running backs—Bell and Reggie Bush—combined for over 2,700 yards from scrimmage, including 1,756 rushing yards and over 100 total catches. The pair scored 15 touchdowns.
The offensive line also came together in 2013, with Stafford taking only 23 sacks—at an NFL best 3.5 percent of his dropbacks. The running game averaged four yards per carry.
Even the tight end position was productive, as Brandon Pettigrew and Joseph Fauria combined for almost 60 catches and nine total touchdowns. Fauria, a rookie, caught seven scores, proving to be a dominant red-zone weapon.
The Lions decided to add one more weapon. And in Ebron, Detroit found a potentially dominant one.
He will enter the professional game as one of the NFL's most athletic tight ends, in the conversation with both Vernon Davis and Jimmy Graham in terms of height, weight and speed. Per NFL.com, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.60 seconds at 6'4" and 260 pounds
Ebron broke Davis' ACC record for receiving yards by a tight end in 2013.
Lombardi likely envisions Ebron as his next Graham, a tight end capable of creating mismatches all over the field and especially in the red zone. A seam-busting pass-catcher with elite run-after-the-catch skills, Ebron has all the upside in the world in the Lions' wide-open offense.
Graham, a third-round pick of the Saints in 2010, caught 301 passes for almost 4,000 yards and 39 scores over his four seasons in New Orleans. Ebron has the kind of rare physical talent—and offensive system—to produce numbers close to Graham.
There should no longer be any excuses for Stafford to produce a season as disappointing as his last two have been.
From 2012 to 2013, Stafford completed less than 60 percent of his passes and tossed 36 interceptions. His passer rating plummeted from 97.2 in 2011 to 81.9 over the last two seasons. Predictably, the Lions have won just 11 games with Stafford under center since winning 10 and making the postseason in 2011.
Everything is now in place for a bounce-back season.
Stafford has the experienced support staff in the coaching room and on the sidelines. His surrounding cast now ranks among the very best in the NFL, with potentially dominant players at receiver and tight end, and more than capable secondary weapons at running back and No. 2 receiver.
If Stafford rebounds, the Lions are a contender in the NFC North and a serious player in the conference. By taking Ebron, Detroit has all but completed an offseason devoted to ensuring his bounce back happens.
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