Eric Ebron was supposed to be the offensive weapon that put the Lions over the top.
The 6'4", 265-pound rookie is a rare mix of size, speed and athleticism. Detroit Lions general manager Martin Mayhew compared Ebron, per The Detroit News via NFL.com, to Seattle Seahawks All-Pro Jimmy Graham.
Mayhew wasn't the only one who thought Ebron's ability and versatility, like Graham, transcended the tight end position. Former NFL scout Russ Lande, per NFL.com, thought Ebron's upside was even higher.
"He is the best tight-end prospect I have evaluated since Kellen Winslow Jr.," Lande told NFL.com's Daniel Kim before the 2014 draft. "A number of NFL people I've spoken with recently believe he will be selected in the top 12, because he is a rare talent who could be better than Jimmy Graham."
Mayhew took Ebron with the No. 10 overall pick. Bleacher Report NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller loved the fit, giving the pick an "A," and TeamStream analyst Chris Simms was even more enthusiastic. The two compared Ebron favorably to San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis, and host Adam Lefkoe thought Ebron could help Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford top 5,000 yards passing in 2014:
The offensive potential of adding Ebron to Stafford's arsenal was obvious.
The Lions could (and did) use Ebron as a traditional inline tight end, a slot receiver, a wideout and even an H-back. Together with superstar No. 1 receiver Calvin Johnson and free-agent addition Golden Tate, Ebron was supposed to be a matchup nightmare in the middle, taking making fools of linebackers and safeties in the space created by the Lions' twin deep threats.
The reality was much, much less electrifying.
Even with Johnson limited by injuries, and few scary receiving options besides Tate, Ebron finished sixth on the team with just 25 catches, and seventh in yardage with just 248. Three Lions running backs finished ahead of Ebron in both categories.
What went wrong?
The problem certainly wasn't in his frame, his tools or, by appearances, his effort. The problem was between his ears.
One of Ebron's few weaknesses as a prospect, as cited by Nolan Nawrocki of NFL.com, was his habit of making "the occasional concentration drop." In 2014, the drops were more than occasional. In fact, Ebron finished with the fifth-worst drop rate among qualifying tight ends, per Pro Football Focus.
First-time offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, importing the New Orleans Saints offense that made Graham a star, might have thrown too much at Ebron too soon. Ebron prematurely boasted, per Dave Birkett and Carlos Monarrez of the Detroit Free Press, he'd already hit the so-called "rookie wall" and broken through.
Two months later, Ebron said he'd been "zombified" by the NFL's physical grind and mental load of multiple roles in a complex offense. Overwhelmed by what he was being asked to do and how fast he was being asked to do it, Ebron didn't do much early. He averaged just 23 snaps a game over the first three weeks.
After scoring his first touchdown in Week 4, Ebron's role slowly expanded. Just as Ebron was starting to get comfortable, though, a hamstring tweak forced him to miss four games.
He came back strong in Week 11, against the Arizona Cardinals. Ebron not only lined up all over the field, he hauled in several tough catches, both over the middle and at the boundaries.
Most impressive of all, he lined up one-on-one with Cardinals cornerback Antonio Cromartie on a second-quarter 3rd-and-5—and depending on your view of things, he either manhandled him (offensive pass interference was called), or Cromartie slipped after trying (and failing) to jam Ebron at the line. Stafford, in the face of a seven-man blitz, zipped it to the wide-open Ebron for a 10-yard gain.
The penalty wiped the play off the books—but Ebron proved he has the ability to line up one-on-one against the league's top corners and get open.
As his role expanded, he became more comfortable and did a better job of executing his various roles. Ebron also came into his own as a blocker, especially in pass protection.
In Week 17, the Lions went into Green Bay for a division-title-deciding matchup. After two fruitless drives and surrendering a punt-return touchdown, they needed to get points. Here's a slow-developing play in which the Lions entrust Stafford's health to Ebron:
In this 1st-and-10, Ebron is lined up to the strong side of a single-back formation. It looks like a run against Green Bay's base defense, and it's meant to.
The Lions run-block for tailback Theo Riddick, who looks like he's running to the left. But both Riddick's approach to the ball and Ebron's movement imply it's a counter coming back to the right. Note that the Packers inside linebackers are staying home, not committing to the flow of the play.
Ebron, whose motion is highlighted in blue, flies to the back side of the play. Were this really a run, he might be about to come through the right A gap as a lead blocker—but with the Lions' right guard and right tackle double-teaming the defensive end, Ebron has to take on Packers outside linebacker Julius Peppers one-on-one.
Yes, that's right: This is a pass play, and the Lions left Peppers unblocked off the right edge and trusted Ebron to come all the way from the left and blow him up before he got to Stafford. Ebron didn't let Stafford down:
It took incredible hustle to beat Peppers to the quarterback, and an all-out effort to blast Peppers completely off his feet. But Ebron did it, Stafford got a clean pocket to stand tall in, and the result was a crucial 14-yard gain. The more trust the Lions have in Ebron to do everything a tight end has to do, the more snaps he'll be out there.
In fact, that game might have been a sneak preview of how Ebron will be used in 2015.
Just two plays after he blew up Peppers, he blew past Packers inside linebacker Clay Matthews and hauled in a 22-yard strike from Stafford over the middle. It was his longest catch of the season, and it was exactly the kind of play the Lions drafted him to make.
One play later, Ebron lined up with his hand down as a traditional inline tight end. At the snap, he sprinted out on a wheel route and cut upfield, racing safety Morgan Burnett down the sideline toward the end zone. Stafford went his way again, and he threw it high and short to let Ebron go up and get it. He did—but Burnett managed to get a hand in as Ebron came down with it, preventing Ebron from topping his biggest play of the season on the very next play.
Stafford kept targeting the rookie, but a combination of poor throws and another good pass breakup held Ebron to just one more 16-yard catch. Even so, it was clear: Ebron can get open and make big plays against the best teams in the NFC. If he can master the offense and build a rapport with Stafford, the sky's the limit.
"Let me tell you something," Lions head coach Jim Caldwell said at the recent NFL owners' meetings, per Birkett. "His offseason, to this point, has been pretty impressive. Now, I'm anticipating, just because I know kind of what he's been doing, working at it, I'm anticipating to see a pretty significant rise in his performance."
Between injuries to Johnson, Ebron and offensive linemen, and disappointing seasons from Stafford and Bush, the Lions offense took a big step back in 2014, even as the defense took a step forward.
In 2015, Lombardi's job will be to use Ebron as a multifaceted weapon, to either draw coverage or exploit insufficient coverage at every level of the field. Looking at how Ebron was used late and how Graham has been used gives us a clue as to just how productive Ebron could be in 2015.
By the end of 2014, Pro Football Focus charted Ebron with a healthier average of 30.6 snaps played per game. He played 50.5 percent of the 968 offensive snaps for which he was healthy; that rate was all the way up to 56 percent over the last three games of the season. Meanwhile, the Saints had Graham on the field for 68.2 percent of available snaps.
Assuming the Lions have the same number of offensive snaps this season as they did last (1,045), and they use Ebron as much as the Saints use Graham, Ebron will be on the field for 713 of them.
If Stafford throws Ebron's way as often as he did against the Packers (on 16.2 percent of Ebron's snaps, a rate even higher than Graham's 2014 average), Ebron will get 115 targets. Even assuming his hands and rapport with Stafford don't improve, those 115 targets will translate into 61 catches.
If Ebron keeps up the yards-per-catch rate he averaged over the last four games of the season, 13.1, he'll tally 799 yards to go with those 61 catches—comparable to Pro Bowlers like Graham (85 catches, 889 yards) and Antonio Gates (69 catches, 821 yards). That production would far outstrip other young guns like Charles Clay, who just signed a bonkers five-year, $38 million contract after catching 58 passes for 605 yards.
To truly fulfill his potential, surpass Graham and reach the higher plane of reality occupied by New England Patriots force of nature Rob Gronkowski, Ebron has a lot of work to do. His hands need to get softer, he has to play with the confidence of someone who knows the offense deep in his bones and he has to stand up under a heavier workload.
If Caldwell is right, and Ebron's a significantly better player when he takes the field this year, he just might be one of the best, most productive tight ends in the NFL.