The Detroit Lions are counting on big impacts from their top two draft picks, tight end Eric Ebron and linebacker Kyle Van Noy. The 10th and 40th overall picks in May’s draft face high expectations to shore up problem areas on a team with lofty goals.
In their first taste of NFL action, Ebron and Van Noy largely underwhelmed. Some of that is a function of a vanilla game plan by Lions coach Jim Caldwell and his staff. Much of the creativity witnessed in the practice sessions I’ve attended was nowhere to be found against the Cleveland Browns on Saturday night at Ford Field.
Here’s a look at how the two important rookies—likely the only ones to be game-day actives this season aside from kicker Nate Freese—fared in their initial live action.
One of the reasons the Lions coveted the North Carolina product is his versatility. While nominally a tight end, Ebron has the speed and footwork of a wide receiver. He’s often compared to New Orleans Saints hybrid Jimmy Graham, a fitting comparison, as new Lions offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi worked alongside Graham in the Big Easy.
In camp practices, Ebron has lined up at several different positions. He’s played the traditional tight end role as well as a flexed end spot in the tight slot. He saw some reps as the "Z" receiver and others as an H-back who starts in the backfield.
He saw action on Detroit's second offensive drive, and his first two snaps here were as an in-line blocker after motioning across the formation.
On the first play, Ebron (No. 85) cannot sustain after initially engaging the defender, which results in allowing a tackle.
He quickly corrects this problem on the very next play. Even though Dan Orlovsky gets tossed down, it's not Ebron's fault; the rookie tight end demonstrates excellent blocking technique and effort here in driving his man off the screen.
On another play, Ebron lined up as the far wideout before motioning into the slot. He makes a poor coverage read here, sitting down in the teeth of the double-team instead of carrying the route across the formation and creating more space for himself. As a result, Orlovsky has no real throwing window and the pass bounces away innocuously.
Getting separation remained an issue for Ebron later as well.
Here, he's blanketed on a dull wheel route by fellow rookie Christian Kirksey, an inside linebacker. This is fantastic coverage by the rangy Iowa product, but it's coverage that Detroit drafted Ebron to defeat. The big rookie cannot pull down the contested catch, nor did he draw a pass interference flag.
These are developmental lessons for Ebron, issues the coaches—and more experience—can and will help iron out. Still, it would be nice if he were a little farther around the rookie learning curve than these plays generally illustrate.
Ebron finished with a minus-0.5 grade from Pro Football Focus (subscription required) on 27 snaps. Most of that was accrued while facing Cleveland's second-team defense. It's worth noting again that the offensive game plan was decidedly vanilla and conservative, which didn't offer him much of a chance to really shine.
As with fellow rookie Ebron, one of Van Noy’s great appeals is his positional versatility. The Lions traded up in the second round to secure his ability to do everything asked of a linebacker in today’s NFL.
Fans got to see some of that versatility in the Cleveland game. The BYU alum played 21 defensive snaps, mostly with the second-team defense, though including one full series against Cleveland's first-team offense.
Here are how his responsibilities played out:
|Run Defense||Pass Rush||Coverage|
Pro Football Focus
Van Noy was at his best in coverage, where he made exactly the sort of impact play the Lions are banking on him making once the games actually count in the standings.
It's a red-zone opportunity for Brian Hoyer and the Browns, and it's also a very well-conceived play. H-back MarQueis Gray slides out into the flat as Hoyer bootlegs to that side off a nice play-action fake.
Van Noy is not fooled. Notice how quickly No. 95 in Honolulu blue reacts to the play and closes on Gray. It's obvious he read his keys and understood his assignment, executing it expertly.
Even though this play wound up being ruled (correctly) an incomplete pass, it highlights Van Noy's great closing speed and incredible agility in space.
Unfortunately, he struggled a bit when he wasn't out in space. On this next play, he's easily negated from the run by a good block.
It could have been worse. Van Noy held the edge and forced the runner back toward his inside help, which is a positive. Still, it would be nice to see him either shed the block or avoid it entirely and make the play.
There were positives for both high-profile rookies, as well as some areas that need obvious work. That's what should be expected of rookies making their NFL debuts.
As the preseason progresses, it's important to see that Ebron and Van Noy are improving in their weaker areas while still looking good in their strengths. The Lions will need both to be immediate and valuable contributors when the regular season starts next month.
Jeff Risdon is a Featured Columnist covering the Detroit Lions. He is also the founder/editor of Detroit Lions Draft and the Senior NFL/Draft writer at RealGM. You can interact with Jeff on Twitter @JeffRisdon.