No one will be questioning the Detroit Lions' selection of North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron at No. 10 overall if he provides Joe Lombardi's offense with the kind of impact the former New Orleans Saints offensive coach once received from All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham.
The two are different players—Graham is 6'7", while Ebron is just 6'4", and Graham tested out better athletically at his combine—but Ebron figures to slide into a similar type of role in Detroit's new offense under Lombardi.
“He’s a very special offensive weapon,” general manager Martin Mayhew said, via Chris McCosky of The Detroit News. “He fits us because he can do some of the things coach (Lombardi) did with Jimmy Graham in New Orleans.”
Graham caught 301 passes for 3,863 yards and 41 touchdowns during his first four seasons in New Orleans. He's been named to two Pro Bowls and two All-Pro teams. Last season, he hauled in a career-high and NFL-high 16 scores.
Expecting Ebron to replicate those results is foolish. Graham is a rare player in a system perfectly suited to maximize his talent. But the Lions have clearly made it known to Ebron how they expect to use him in Lombardi's new offense in Detroit.
“The same way Jimmy Graham was when (Lombardi) was coaching Jimmy Graham,” Ebron said, via McCosky.
For most of the last three years, Graham has been the focal point of the Saints passing game. Ebron won't be the No. 1 guy with Calvin Johnson still in his prime, at least not as a rookie. He's going to play second or even third fiddle for the Lions, much like Graham did during his first season.
Projecting Ebron into a Graham-like role for Lombardi and the Lions still isn't difficult.
Below, we compared some of the things given to Graham in the Saints offense to what Ebron produced in similar situations during his collegiate career at North Carolina.
Attacking the Seam
Few quarterback-tight end combos are better at working down the seam than Drew Brees and Graham, partly because Brees is so good with moving players with his eyes, but also because Graham uses his big body to create separation.
In the clip below, we see Graham attack Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson down the middle portion of the field:
Graham is offset as the second tight end to the right of the formation. Pre-snap, Brees probably already knows he has a one-on-one down the seam with Graham. That's easy football for Brees. Look off any safety help and then work back to his big tight end with the one-on-one matchup.
Ebron will enter the NFL with plenty of experience getting down the field as a seam receiver.
Here we see Ebron create space for himself and a target for his quarterback over the middle of the field:
He lines up in the right slot. The cornerback gives him a free release, which will likely be uncommon in the NFL. The linebacker in charge of Ebron underneath bites on his subtle stop-and-go move, opening up a window in between the second and third layers of the zone. He makes the catch in front of the safety—getting the angle to prevent any jump of the route—and hauls in the pass 20 yards down the seam.
One more look at Ebron and how his understanding of running routes will help him working the seam:
The play is a fake bubble screen, with Ebron lined up wide in a trips set to the left. His hesitation sets up the route, and his deceptive break inside sucks in the safety. He then makes a sharp cut, accelerates upfield and finds himself over the top for an easy pitch-and-catch (although his catch was anything but easy).
Ebron has good size, but he'll need to rely more on route running to win down the seam. Graham can typically use his huge frame and natural athleticism to box out defenders and gain an inch of separation.
Still, expect to see Lombardi employ similar seam routes for Ebron, especially with the threat of Calvin Johnson on the outside. A safety can't both bracket cover Johnson and still handle Ebron down the seam on the same play.
Isolation on the Perimeter
Possibly no team in football isolates its tight end on the perimeter more than the Saints with Graham. The strategy works because it puts the opposing defensive coordinator in a big bind.
If Graham is split out alone to the left, who covers him? A cornerback will typically have a major size disadvantage, few (if any) linebackers can handle him one-on-one and most safeties won't have the speed or athleticism. So, coordinators are usually left with either conceding a huge mismatch or giving bracket coverage to a tight end. It's a lose-lose situation.
Here's one example of the Saints taking full advantage:
Graham splits out wide to the left, isolated in the formation. The Arizona Cardinals counter with safety Yeremiah Bell in one-on-one coverage. Again, Brees likely knows exactly where he's going with the football before the play even begins.
Bell doesn't have bad coverage on the play, but Graham in this situation is simply too much. He wins the jump ball in the end zone with relative ease, giving the Saints six easy points.
Ebron can be a similar matchup nightmare in one-on-one scenarios.
Below, Ebron beats single coverage and wins a jump ball in the end zone:
He lines up in the slot, with a receiver out wide. This isn't isolation. But the route concept turns into a one-on-one battle with the cornerback/safety, and Ebron wins easily.
The receiver flashes underneath while Ebron floats to the corner on a mini fade, giving the quarterback a jump-ball throw. Ebron high-points the football against the overmatched defender for an easy touchdown.
Here is an example of North Carolina isolating Ebron in a big situation:
It's fourth down, and the Tar Heels need eight yards. North Carolina splits Ebron out wide to the left (bottom of the screen), much like the Saints have done countless times with Graham. Cincinnati gives single coverage with a cornerback.
This is trouble right away for the defense. Ebron gets upfield, causing the cornerback to flip his hips outside and turn his head away from the quarterback. He's beat. Ebron suddenly swims inside on the slant—leaving the corner in an obvious trail position—before making the catch in front of the safety. It's an easy first down because the matchup was such a good one for Ebron and the Tar Heels.
With Lombardi at the controls in Detroit, expect Ebron to get plenty of these opportunities.
Think of a three-wide set with Ebron split to one side and Johnson and Golden Tate to the other. Where do you roll coverage? Who is assigned to Ebron? Is playing man-to-man simply too big of risk?
Like Brees so often sees, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford will likely get a very favorable pre-snap look against this formation. And more often than not, at least one receiver—be it Ebron, Johnson or Tate—is going to get a good matchup against a smaller or lesser-skilled defensive back.
Graham is very good down the field, but he also makes a boatload of catches underneath. Why? Because the Saints can scheme ways of getting him against linebackers in zone or man coverage.
Watch any Saints game and you'll see concepts designed to load up the safeties and isolate Graham. Any type of Cover 3 defense can be exploited with clear-out routes from the receivers that give Graham options inside—like sitting down against zone with a hitch route, or breaking inside or out against man-to-man.
When the roaming safety is occupied, an athletic tight end like Graham or Ebron can take advantage against linebackers in the open spaces over the middle of the field.
Also, don't discount Ebron's ability to create after the catch.
According to Greg Peshek of Rotoworld.com, Ebron caught almost 50 percent of his collegiate passes within five yards of the line of scrimmage. While his average reception came less than six yards down the field, he also averaged almost nine yards after the catch—which led the five tight ends included in his study (Jace Amaro, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Troy Niklas and Richard Rodgers being the other four).
His ability to turn short gains into big plays will give Lombardi confidence in providing Ebron ample chances to catch and run underneath. Watch for Ebron to receive plays where he's the first read on quick hits to the flats.
Let's be very clear: Graham and Ebron are not the same player. Graham might be the most physically dominant receiving tight end to ever play the game. His rare ability has made a lot of what the Saints do with him click.
Ebron is still going to be a matchup problem. He might not be 6'7" or run in the 4.4 range, but it's still very difficult to game-plan against a player as big and fast as Ebron. And when you have an offensive coordinator that just spent four years watching Sean Payton and Pete Carmichael plug in things for a player like Graham, there's a pretty good chance those same concepts are going to be recycled with Ebron now on board.
Attacking the seam, isolating coverage outside and designing clever ways to work the underneath areas are all ways the Lions can get maximum production from their newest first-round pick.
Graham-like dominance might not be attainable for Ebron, but he's going to get every chance to thrive in the same system that helped turn Graham into an All-Pro in New Orleans.
Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report.