Over the years there have been a lot of failed receivers in the Lions organization. There was a trait that they all seemed to share, and it was often overlooked by the previous management teams in favor of combine stats or college production. That trait was that they didn’t have all of the key competencies of a receiver. A receiver needs to do three things, there are other things that can be asked of him but the core competencies of a receiver are not complicated or numerous. Yet the Lions have managed to find very few that were able to fulfill all of those responsibilities. Some have fallen to off the field issues like Charles Rogers, Mike Williams, and Titus Young. While others have met with the injury bug more times than any one man should, Ryan Broyles and Brandon Pettigrew immediately spring to mind. The vast majority of the Lions failed receivers were basically flawed in one of the three core competencies. These three competencies are as follows:
- Route running
- Creating separation
- Catching the ball
As a rookie coming in to the NFL, sometimes a player will never have shown any problem with these three areas, and sometimes there are just going to be growing pains. In a majority of cases the team should have seen it coming.
Eric Ebron’s Route Running is Fine
College offenses often have a very simplified route tree in the era of the spread offense meaning that a college receiver might only have had to learn five or fewer routes. By contrast, my high school team in the nineties had a fifteen route tree. I don’t say that to pump up my high school coach, 2011 NFL-Canada youth coach of the year Rick Gilson, but to point out that college offenses are doing a poor job of preparing their receivers for the NFL. In the NFL, the number of routes and pre-snap decisions a receiver is being asked to make can be insane. Almost every college receiver needs work in this area because they’re being asked to do so much more than they ever have been before. This deficiency can be fixed with hard work and nothing more. The player’s work ethic and experience determine whether this is going to be a problem or not, and players who are drafted because they have already mastered it are rarely successful in the NFL, as their college tape can be very misleading. It is like watching a game in which one player is using a full set of chess pieces against another that has only pawns. When they get to the NFL, everyone has the same pieces and their opponents have been using them for years. So when Ebron came in as a rookie and needed work in this regard, it was not at all unexpected, and he has improved greatly over the course of two seasons.
Eric Ebron Can Beat His Man
Prior to reaching the NFL, collegiate players often ride their superior athletic ability to success. In at least half of their games, the top tier of college football players are not facing a single other player that matches them in athletic ability. The transition to the NFL leaves many rookies wondering what kind of buzz saw they just walked into, with the average rookie going from being the best player on the field to being an average athlete lacking the years of practice and coaching of his opponent. Eric Ebron can be forgiven for his brash entry to the league, he just expected it to be like every other new level. Over the last two seasons he has improved his technique and played a more physical game, an absolute requirement for a big bodied possession receiver who occasionally lines up as an in-line tight end – which is what he is in the NFL. He has not become the “complete tight end”, but he was not drafted to be that. He was drafted to be an offensive weapon, and he has learned to translate his athleticism into the NFL field of play. Play after play Ebron is open, running toward the sideline having beaten a linebacker, or streaking up the middle of the field having shed the nickle corner like he wasn’t even there. In this area of NFL football, Eric Ebron is already exactly what we hoped he would become when he was drafted at number ten.
Eric Ebron Needs To Catch The Ball
The third competency is where all that other hard work and dedication can cease to matter for Ebron. If a receiver got exactly where he was supposed to be by running the route and beating his man, but failed to come up with the catch on third down that would have extended the drive, the effect is far more than simply the end of that one drive. Trust is huge in the NFL between quarterbacks and their receivers. If the receiver has already shown that he is likely to waste the effort of his teammates by not coming up with an easy catch, then the quarterback is going to be just one millisecond faster in moving on to his next option later in the game. The offensive coordinator is also going to be significantly more hesitant to call on that receiver in key situations, and a tight end is supposed to be one of the receivers that gets a team tough third down yards to extend drives. For the last few seasons, the Lions relied far to heavily on Calvin Johnson for this when, first Brandon Pettigrew and then Eric Ebron, showed that their hands were not to be trusted between the twenties. The damage he sustained performing a role that should have been handled by lesser men has to be part of his decision to retire. Ebron’s yards after the catch were what got him drafted at number 10 overall, so it is not difficult to understand his natural tendency to be focused on making plays after the catch, but with Johnson gone the drops simply can not continue. Unfortunately for Lions fans, these drops are not the result of the added pressure to perform in the NFL. It is not two seasons that we have to go on but his entire documented career as a football player. He dropped passes in college, he dropped passes at his pro day working out for scouts and coaches, and has continued to drop passes in the NFL.
Eric Ebron is the Key to the Lions Success in the Passing Game
The signing of Anquan Boldin lessens the catastrophic effect that such drops can have. He is the ultimate NFL possession receiver and will likely leech a lot of the key third down work from Ebron, but the team will be far better off if he does not have to. If Ebron can fix his problem and earn the trust of his teammates and coaches on the field, rather than in media appearances where they are asked about drops and defend their teammates, the Lions will be one of the most dangerous passing offenses in the NFL in 2016. A two minute drill with Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, Anquan Boldin, Theo Riddick, and Eric Ebron on the field is a nightmare that is quite frankly impossible for most defenses to match up with. That being said, any chain is only as strong as it’s weakest link. That suspect link is, in this case, is the ability of Eric Ebron to catch a football. If Ebron takes his drop percentage from 7.1% in 2015 down to a respectable 3% or less, the Detroit Lions are quite likely to be one of the most successful offenses in the NFL.