Predicting rookie statistics is an endeavor that is far more miss than hit. The same is true whether we’re talking about a first round receiver or a seventh round defensive end. So many factors go into statistics that it’s difficult to find a happy medium that gives you a decent probability of accuracy. That has never stopped me before! Using trends from the Lions’ offensive coaches past stops, I calculated the possible stats for both Matthew Stafford and his receivers. Do those calculations hold true if we look at trends solely for tight ends?
Using Stafford’s projection, and assuming Ebron is the TE1 for all of 2013, we ended up with a solid 56 catch, 638 yard, 6 TD rookie campaign. While unsurprisingly many fans thought these numbers were too low given the rookie’s lofty 10th overall draft status and the Lions’ heavy passing offense, the reality is actually far lower than those numbers when we look at some of the best tight ends in the league.
Who can we compare Ebron to as a prospect? The only other top ten tight end was Vernon Davis, and while their skill sets are similar and many hope their usage would be as well, we’re still only talking about one player which doesn’t give us the kind of breadth of data we would need to make an accurate assessment. To do that, I added in several highly drafted tight ends from the past decade as well as some of the more heavily utilized tight ends that were drafted later. This allowed me to keep his draft status in perspective while also including some usage comparisons as well.
For context, we’re looking at all of the receptions leaders for tight ends in the past couple of years as well as many first and second round tight ends considered the best in their respective classes. There are several future Hall of Famers among them, like Antonio Gates, Jason Witten, and Tony Gonzalez. We also have some of the best, young tight ends in the game like Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham. Gronkowski had arguably the best rookie season of any tight end ever, so his inclusion was very important.
So how did these players perform as rookies? Well for starters, not one of the players I listed reached the “low” 56 catch projection I had made for Ebron. The closest was actually Jermaine Gresham, who hauled in 52 passes as a rookie. Yards? Similarly low, with no player coming near my earlier projection. The closest was Rob Gronkowski with 545 yards. Gronkowski was also the only player with more than the 6 TDs I projected (Heath Miller would be second with 6, the only player that high). Clearly I need to re-evaluate the projections.
The average amongst all of the players I had listed for their rookie campaigns, and remember there are hall of famers and superstars taking up a significant chunk of that list, seems very pedestrian at first glance.
There are some fairly significant tells in these numbers that illustrate the olde adage that rookie TEs tend to struggle. Most noticeable is that most rookie TEs don’t start even half of their rookie seasons. In fact, only ONE of the tight ends I listed started all 16 games, Zach Miller for Oakland. Also notable is the general lack of opportunity most rookie TEs are given with below 30 catches and around 325 yards over the course of a season. The only players that ended higher than the 3 TDs average tended to be those who are still considered red zone nightmares like Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, and Heath Miller. Overall, the numbers are not very impressive regardless of draft or eventual superstar status.
Then Why Draft a Tight End?
In comes the rub. Why, if rookie tight ends tend to struggle and even the best of the best were not immediate impact players, would the Lions consider drafting Eric Ebron a “win now” type of move? It’s difficult to put a finger on what the team was thinking, but it’s even more important to understand the relative progression for young tight ends. Using those same players (Except Eifert, who only has one season), it paints a convincing picture to the Lions’ thought process. Second year tight ends are among some of the most improved players at any positions in the NFL. When using averages, you generally expect subtle shifts through which you can extract valuable data. The shift for tight ends entering year two is the very opposite of subtle. So unsubtle in fact, that it must be done in graph form to do it any justice.
Those numbers become very impressive very quickly. While tight ends tend to struggle as rookies, they tend to break out hard as second year players. Not shown in the graphs are other important numbers, as the average TDs nearly doubles. Eric Ebron faces a tougher road than most rookie tight ends since he isn’t being brought along slowly. The payoff could be huge, however, and it looks like the Lions are not only expecting big things from their rookie first rounder (Like they do every rookie first rounder), but actually playing the numbers. A rookie Eric Ebron is exciting. 2015 Eric Ebron could be terrifying for opposing defenses.