Eric Ebron Can Be the Final Piece in Detroit Lions' Arsenal

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Eric Ebron Can Be the Final Piece in Detroit Lions' Arsenal
Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

The Detroit Lions selected Eric Ebron in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft.

Ebron's selection wasn't a huge surprise, but there were many other options available to head coach Jim Caldwell and general manager Martin Mayhew who were arguably better prospects. It's not really a negative against Ebron; instead, it speaks to the depth of this class in the first round.

There were three players in particular who stood out from the crowd.

Even though Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley remain on the roster entering the 2014 season, Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald must have been appealing as a long-term option. Donald is a very versatile pass-rusher who could have immediately contributed as part of the rotation.

While the cornerback position in Detroit hasn't been a priority in recent years, there were a number of players available after Justin Gilbert who could have been in play for the Lions. Kyle Fuller was the most likely of those, but the very talented youngster eventually landed with the Lions' division rival, the Chicago Bears.

After Sammy Watkins went to the Buffalo Bills and Mike Evans went to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Odell Beckham Jr. was the top receiver remaining. Beckham was an outstanding prospect and the most pro-ready offensive player available—even more pro-ready than Ebron.

Ebron was attractive to the Lions for a number of reasons. Obviously, one of those reasons was his individual skill set.

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The 21-year-old is a tight end with exceptional athleticism. He ran a 4.6-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, while measuring 6'4" and 250 pounds, according to NFL.com. Even though he still projects as a raw football player, his athleticism at a premium position in today's league made him worthy of a top-10 pick.

Much like Jimmy Graham, arguments will soon begin about whether Ebron is really a tight end or simply a mislabeled receiver.

He was drafted as a tight end and will likely be listed as a tight end. But he is not a good blocker even if he is willing, and the Lions already have multiple tight ends on the roster who can line up inside. Even in college, Ebron spent a lot of time split out running routes.

His designation won't be important until his contract runs out. Right now, his skill set and what he can contribute is more important.

Credit: DraftBreakdown.com

While Ebron is rightfully criticized for his lack of consistency and focus when catching the football, it's not a result of a lack of comfort. Ebron shows off excellent body control and precision when running routes, while he also recognizes the flight of the football and naturally adjusts to it in traffic.

These are the kinds of plays that suggest Ebron can develop into a mismatch receiving option like Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez or Jimmy Graham.

Ebron needs to be more consistent and prove that he can play at the NFL level, but in terms of pure ability, he has everything teams are looking for in receiving tight ends. That talent and his fit with what the Lions want to do on offense made him their selection over the other talented prospects.

When Jim Caldwell became the head coach of the franchise during the offseason, he spoke of building around Matthew Stafford and improving his accuracy. The Lions offense will go as far as Stafford allows it to go.

There are two ways Caldwell can help Stafford be more efficient: directly and indirectly.

Directly improving Stafford's accuracy will entail improving his footwork, balance and the consistency of his release point. While Caldwell will feel confident that he can change Stafford's throwing motion, the 26-year-old quarterback has been consistently inconsistent with his throwing mechanics for five seasons in the NFL now.

It's tough to dramatically alter how a player plays at this point of his career, regardless of his relative youth. With that in mind, it may be easier to make Stafford more efficient through indirect means. This is where Ebron's presence comes into focus.

Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

There are two primary ways of helping a quarterback be more efficient indirectly. First, you can give him receivers with greater catch radiuses who understand how to adjust to poorly placed passes. Secondly, you can give the quarterback quick, simple throws that don't ask him to make a read or throw with precision or power.

Although he endured a relatively underwhelming season against his standards last season, Calvin Johnson is the ultimate wide receiver for indirectly helping a quarterback with accuracy issues.

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

Johnson has a huge catch radius that allows him to regularly make defenders irrelevant on jump balls, but he is also able to adjust to off-target passes while running routes, and he has the ability to create yards after the catch.

Joseph Fauria also gives the quarterback a greater margin for error with his accuracy, but he is a more limited all-around receiving option.

Ebron brings the same size and an impressive catch radius of his own to the tight end spot in Detroit, but he is also more of a natural receiver than Fauria and more talented than Brandon Pettigrew, even if he needs to prove that he can be more consistent than him.

Having one receiver with an accuracy-erasing catch radius is beneficial, but having two is dramatically more valuable because it's generally impossible for defenses to match up to both players.

With Ebron, Johnson and Fauria, the Lions can create matchup problems for the defense all over the field. When you add Pettigrew or Kris Durham and Joique Bell to the mix, the Lions may have the only group of heavy skill position players that can compare to that of the Chicago Bears.

If facing bigger defensive backs who can disrupt those accuracy-erasing catch radiuses, using the other indirect way of helping the quarterback is more advisable.

The problem with creating simple throws for the quarterback is that it generally limits your offense. Unless you have a very creative offensive coordinator or dynamic receiving options who can break off big gains after the catch, the strategy will significantly limit what you can achieve on offense.

Clearly, the Lions don't have that problem.

Unless Ebron struggles to adapt during his rookie season, he and Johnson should spend a huge amount of time together on the field in 2014. While Ebron may not be an amazing yards-after-catch (YAC) receiver, he should have enough athleticism to be effective at the next level. Johnson is a proven YAC receiver.

Behind those two, the Lions need to play three other skill position players who can create yards after the catch.

Free-agent addition Golden Tate wasn't specifically brought in because of his ability after the catch, but it's clearly one of his greatest strengths. Tate ranked 15th in the NFL in yards after the catch last season. Ryan Broyles has endured an injury-plagued career in the NFL to this point, but if healthy, he also offers good ability after the catch.

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

Even if Broyles isn't healthy, the Lions still have three players who finished in the top 21 of yards after the catch last season.

Johnson is one, but versatile running backs Reggie Bush and Joique Bell also averaged 10.6 and 9.1 yards after the catch per reception last season, respectively. Bell particularly excels at catching screen passes out of the backfield, while Bush can line up anywhere to be effective.

Having Ebron and Johnson as the base of their passing attack, with an ensemble cast of potential contributors behind them, should give the Lions an offense that can not only put Matthew Stafford in the best possible position to succeed, but also carry him through any stretches of poor play.

Even if Jim Caldwell does nothing during his time as head coach of the Detroit Lions except put Matthew Stafford in the best possible position to succeed, he should expect to be very successful.

How Eric Ebron performs should play a huge role in that success.

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