The Eric Ebron Myth

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The saga of Eric Ebron has been an interesting one, to say the least. From the moment former GM Martin Mayhew made him the tenth overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, the tight end has been arguably the most polarizing player on the team. At a time when tight ends were revolutionizing the game, Ebron was touted as the next big thing coming out of UNC; a future Pro Bowler. Many fans feel as if he hasn’t lived up to that billing, and perhaps rightfully so. Ebron can be absolutely maddening. Drops and stretches where he seemingly takes plays off have mired his career thus far.

But he can also be brilliant. There are few tight ends in the league who are more dangerous with the ball in their hands than Eric Ebron, and his athleticism creates matchup problems for opposing defenses. Nevertheless, he has been a lightning rod for criticism. Some fans routinely take to social media to offer him condescending advice and hostility, and Ebron isn’t shy with his retorts, which doesn’t help matters. But a lot of the anger directed towards him is misguided, because a lot of it stems from circumstances outside of his control.

The narrative surrounding him has been that he was taken before All-Pros Odell Beckham Jr. (12th overall) and Aaron Donald (13th overall), and that this somehow makes him a bust. The historical revisionism is baffling. Of course, fans were upset about the pick at the time. There were a few prospects they had in mind that they wanted over Ebron. One was local product Darquez Dennard, the former Michigan State cornerback who has logged just four starts and one interception in 39 career games for the Bengals after being taken 24th overall. Others were Anthony Barr, who was unavailable after the rival Vikings made him the eighth overall pick, and Justin Gilbert, who’s currently out of a job.

Armchair scouting is easy, folks. People also like to forget that the Lions had just signed Golden Tate to a long-term deal and had super-receiver Calvin Johnson on the roster, thereby ruling out a receiver (i.e. Odell Beckham, Jr.) They also had the best defensive tackle in the game in Ndamukong Suh and 2011 first round pick Nick Fairley in the defensive interior, making it unlikely they’d have gone with an certain undersized 3-technique out of Pittsburgh. But revisionist history is convenient for fans of a team that has done a traditionally dismal job of drafting. Luckily for Eric Ebron (and Detroit fans), nobody remembers Hakeem Olajuwon as a bust just because he was taken two picks ahead of Michael Jordan.

And having recently celebrated his 24th birthday, Ebron is just scratching the surface of his potential. He’s improved in every single year. These are his splits from his first three seasons:

2014 – 25 receptions, 47 targets, 248 yards, 1 TD, 8.5% drop rate

2015 – 47 receptions, 70 targets, 537 yards, 5 TDs, 7.1% drop rate

2016 – 61 receptions, 85 targets, 711 yards, 1 TD, 8.2% drop rate

As Logan Lamorandier noted, Ebron’s three year receiving yards total (1496) dwarfs those of several successful NFL tight ends – Martellus Bennett (703), Tyler Eifert (1097), Delanie Walker (359), and Jared Cook (1194). Three of those guys are Pro Bowlers. It’s also close to the three year total (1577) of Greg Olsen, who’s also a Pro Bowler.

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His touchdown numbers leave a lot to be desired, but Ebron was a top ten tight end in several major categories in 2016 – yards (8th), receptions (10), yards per game (7th), receptions per game (8th). He also ranked fifth in yards per catch and fourth in YAC among tight ends with 60+ receptions. Ebron also compared favorably in some more advanced metrics. According to Football Outsiders’ DYAR (defensive-adjusted yards above replacement), which aims to indicate a player’s total value, Eric Ebron ranked sixth. He was also a big-time chain-mover in 2016. In first down catches on 3rd down, he tied for seventh (among wide receivers and tight ends) with 15. In first down catches on 3rd & >7, he was tied for second with seven. In percentage of first downs per target, he ranked 15th (43.5%). He did all this while missing three games.

In the months leading up to the 2016 draft, GM Bob Quinn sounded off on Eric Ebron, saying this:

“Eric’s got a unique skill set, really explosive player, really good speed…I think he did show improvement from year one to year two which is really what you want to see from a player. [Year] one to two is huge, two to three is probably the next years you’re really looking at, and really by year three, you know what you have.”

What the Lions have is a dynamic, budding, young star. His fifth-year option has yet to be picked up, with the deadline being May 3rd. But, I have no doubt the team will choose to exercise it; Quinn waited until the very last minute to do so for Ziggy Ansah, who was coming off a Pro Bowl campaign during which he recorded 14.5 sacks. And Ebron might be coming up on a breakout season of his own. Now that Anquan Boldin is gone, Eric Ebron will be asked to do even more of what he did in 2016 – move the chains. Take a look at where Ebron and Boldin ranked in some of the aforementioned statistical categories.

%1st Downs/Target

15. Ebron, 43.5% (37/85)

16. Boldin, 43.2% (41/95)

1st Down Catches, 3rd Down

3. Boldin, 20

7t. Ebron, 15

1st Down Catches, 3rd & >7

2t. Ebron, 7

4t. Boldin, 5

The only categories in which Boldin ranked in the top 20 and Ebron did not were receptions inside opponent’s 20 (tied for second with 14), reception inside opponent’s 10 (tied for third with 6), and receiving touchdowns (tied for fifth with 8). It is also worth noting that Theo Riddick (11) and Golden Tate (9) were ranked sixth and seventh in receptions inside opponent’s 20. Riddick also ranked fifth in receptions inside opponent’s 10 with four. The usage rates of these other weapons down in the red zone could in part account for Ebron’s low TD total in 2016. Riddick and Tate are set to return obviously, but Boldin looks increasingly less likely to come back with each passing day. Boldin’s production (67 receptions, 584 yards, 8 TDs) was significant, and somebody will need to pick up the mantle. The smart money says Ebron will assume a good portion of that workload in 2017, simply due to the similarities in how they were used in 2016.

Ebron stepped up and helped fill the void left by Megatron, as he saw 15 more targets (roughly one per game) in 2016 than in 2015, which translated to 14 more receptions and an increase of about 1.5 more targets per game. Boldin’s departure, and the improvement of the Lions’ offensive line have created the perfect storm for Eric Ebron to take another step and live up to the potential that got him taken 10th overall three years ago. Last year he made the jump from former top 10 pick to top 10 tight end. Don’t be surprised if he makes the jump to Pro Bowl tight end this year.

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