Eric Ebron and the struggle for rookie tight ends

Dec 7, 2014; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions tight end Eric Ebron (85) makes a catch and looks for running room during the third quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 7, 2014; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions tight end Eric Ebron (85) makes a catch and looks for running room during the third quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

After re-signing veteran Brandon Pettigrew, and with Joseph Fauria coming off a seven-touchdown rookie season, the Detroit Lions looked set at tight end heading into the 2014 NFL draft.

So when the Lions selected North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron with the 10th overall pick, General Manager Martin Mayhew caught flack from factions of the fan base and the media, who wondered why the team decided to add a third tight end while bypassing potential talent on defense and at wide receiver.

It is fair to assume Ebron was the Lions highest rated player on the board since they did not draft for need. Most teams pretend to draft BPA (Best Player Available) but it doesn’t always happen that way. The Lions selected Ebron with the hope that his size and speed would infuse the offense with another dangerous weapon.

Ebron was the highest drafted tight end since San Francisco selected Vernon Davis 6th overall in 2006. Since 2001, only three tight ends (Kellen Winslow, Davis and Ebron) have been selected in the top 10.

Though scouting reports based off game tape advertised him as supremely athletic, Ebron’s spider graph wasn’t all that impressive. During the draft process, there were comparisons to Vernon Davis, but athletically Davis was in the 97th percentile or better.

After a pedestrian rookie season in which Ebron mostly failed to flash his talent, more fans joined the chorus labeling his selection as a mistake, with others eager to anoint him with the dreaded ‘bust’ label after just 13 games. While it is too early to gage what Ebron’s career may look like, there is hard evidence that his struggles are common among rookie tight ends.

Tight end has historically been one of the most difficult positions for players to master in their transition from college to the NFL. Perhaps it’s because of the physicality and responsibility that comes with playing tight end in the NFL. Most guys were able to outclass college defenders with their pure size and athleticism. However, in the NFL, everyone is big and athletic. The best tight ends win with technically sound routes and consistently make the tough contested catches across the middle of the field. Plus, you have to throw a block at this level.

Of the 16 tight ends who have been selected in the first round over the past 14 years, Ebron ranked 11th in receiving yards, ahead of some big names.

NFL Rookie 1st Round TEs

Stats per Pro Football Reference

Heap made the Pro Bowl the next two seasons and was a mainstay among the top tight ends for a decade. Winslow had several solid seasons and made a Pro Bowl, as did Lewis.

Below is a look at how the top 12 receiving tight ends from 2014 fared as rookies. I included a handful of other prominent tight ends that battled injuries last season, and added the greatest player at the position in NFL history.

NFL Rookie TE stats

Stats per Pro Football Reference

Many of these tight ends made great progress in their second season.

Was Ebron stellar in year one? No. Was he terrible? No. Rather, as is common in sports debates, his performance was somewhere in the murky middle.

When we combine the eye test with the data, Ebron’s season was close to the norm for rookie tight ends, rather than a complete disaster like some would have you believe.

Yet there is cause for concern. The one major knock on Ebron coming out of college was his inconsistent hands. He had an 11.4% drop rate at UNC, the highest among all TE prospects.

That criticism held true, as Ebron did not look like a natural pass catcher. Whether it was due to a lack of confidence or concentration, mental fatigue, or the pressure to perform, he did not look comfortable catching the football. On 46 total targets, Pro Football Focus marked Ebron with four drops on 29 catchable passes, a drop rate of 13.8%. Of the 39 tight ends with over 30 targets, his drop rate ranked 34th.

Against New England, Ebron dropped a pass for potentially 30 yards after breaking free on a well-designed wheel route.

DET-NE Ebron drop shot play

He had an ugly drop in the NFC North title game, which helped to stall a crucial possession in Green Bay territory.

DET-GB Ebron drop

Drops are a major weakness and if he is to earn the trust of the coaching staff and Matthew Stafford, he must improve.

Although he earned consistent playing time as a rookie—he played in 40.7% of the teams’ offensive snaps–Ebron failed to emerge as an offensive weapon. He was not a threat downfield, with just four catches coming beyond 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. Much of his damage was done sneaking over the middle off play action passes.

Some of his challenges were mental. Ebron ostensibly had difficulty with the grind of the NFL season, claiming to be ‘zombified’ after week four. This isn’t uncommon for a rookie, yet it leads to questions about whether the New Jersey native was mentally prepared as a 21-year old. It was a rude awakening for a player who compared himself to Saints star Jimmy Graham and claimed, “I thought I’d come into the league and I’d thrive like college.”

Fans and media will continue to discuss the Ebron pick during the offseason. Like many of the stellar tight ends before him, Ebron can quiet the critics and reward the Lions’ faith in him with a major leap forward in year two.

*Note after publication, I edited the sentence with Ebron’s drop rate to include the number of catchable passes from his total targets. This should avoid confusion on how PFF’s stat was derived.

Credit to NFL Game Rewind for the game film. All Illustrations and GIFs were created by Marlowe Alter for the purpose of reporting, commenting and critiquing.

You can follow Marlowe on Twitter and check out his film review articles for the Detroit Free Press.

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