When the Lions released tight end Eric Ebron on March 14th, a fanbase’s dreams – four years in the making – were finally realized. The former tenth overall pick was a lightning rod for criticism during his time in Detroit, as he was plagued by drops and maligned as a bust. Ebron’s contentious relationship with the fans came to a boiling point in October, as they booed him at Ford Field and chided him on social media.
He fired back with tweets and press conference remarks, worsening matters. But at the end of the season, Ebron had seemed to turn the corner. He was one of the most productive tight ends through the last five weeks of the season, catching 25 passes on 36 targets for 257 yards and two touchdowns – numbers that compared favorably to anybody not named Rob Gronkowski or Travis Kelce.
Nevertheless, rumors surfaced that the team was shopping him. And when they couldn’t find any suitors, he was subsequently cut on March 14th. Cognitive dissonance quickly set in amongst the fanbase, who collectively realized they were suddenly without a viable starter. But, breakups can have happy endings. And just as the dreams of Lions fans came true, so did the dreams of Eric Ebron, who evidently wanted a change of scenery, and Luke Willson, a LaSalle, Ontario native who grew up a Lions fan just 35 minutes from Detroit.
When Willson signed a 1-year, $2.5 million deal to play for his hometown team, he moved out of the shadow of Jimmy Graham and into the bright lights of Ford Field. He should have an opportunity to contribute more on offense, but the question is to what extent?
Size and Athleticism
At 6’5″, 250 lbs., Willson offers prototypical size and plus athleticism at the position. He lined up out wide, in the slot, and as an H-back for Seattle, but was most frequently utilized as an in-line blocker. And while Lions fans may be excited about his combine numbers, I don’t think he’s the elite athlete in pads that he is in underwear.
His release from a receiver stance is good and he can quickly cover grass if given cushion at the line of scrimmage. He has the ability to stretch defenses vertically and up the seam, but his speed on underneath routes, while solid, pales in comparison. Furthermore, he comes out of 3-point stances duck-footed, which compounds his marginal separation quickness.
As athletic as he is, Willson struggles to open up on a regular basis, due almost entirely to his crude route running skills. He demonstrates a minimal understanding of leverage; does not consistently utilize fakes to his advantage; and gears down and tilts into his breaks. I also didn’t like his strength throughout routes. Press gave him trouble, and defenders playing catch technique stymied his routes. That’s not a winning recipe for any passcatcher.
Willson also has a history of drops, although I didn’t see any in the games I watched. His catching technique needs improvement, as he doesn’t snatch the ball with optimal extension and allows throws into his frame. He does, however, demonstrate the ability to highpoint the ball when adjusting to throws above his head. Tracking the ball downfield was another issue, as he slows himself down by turning his upper body rather than just his head.
Willson is a decent threat with the ball in his hands, but doesn’t turn upfield quickly and won’t make the first man miss often. But, he is capable of outracing linebackers and some safeties in the open field.
As a receiver, Willson is a considerable downgrade from Ebron. Where he’ll improve the offense is in the run blocking department, as he proved to be capable as both an inline and lead blocker. He could improve his hand usage and aiming points when blocking inline so as to help him sustain blocks, but he strikes with balance, explosion, and good pad level. Second-level work was easy for him, as he took optimal angles while quickly hoofing up to linebackers. These traits give him value as a lead blocker, something he was asked to do somewhat frequently in Seattle. And his competitive toughness, tenacity, and high motor really shined through in the run game.
I also liked his mental processing, which he demonstrated through good spatial awareness and blitz processing as both a route runner and pass blocker.
Projection and Role
Ultimately, I don’t think Willson prohibits the Lions from making a long-term investment at the position. He’s a good tight end B, but I’m not sure he’s a ‘win with’ starter. If second-year wideout Kenny Golladay steps up, then tight end production won’t be as crucial to the offense. But, if Golladay doesn’t develop, the Lions could be left wanting after the departure of their third option. Barring a meteoric improvement in Willson’s route running, Detroit will need to add to the tight end room if they want significant production from the position in 2018.