The Detroit Lions selection of Eric Ebron with their 10th overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft was not met with universal praise amongst the fan base. It was not met with universal scrutiny either. Many understood the Lions pick was made to upgrade an anemic receiving corps that featured not only no standout, but no competent receiving threats outside superstar Calvin Johnson. Others thought the need to upgrade the defense outweighed the offensive needs, or pointed to Ebron’s drop issues in college as a red flag. Some just wanted their favorite player from MSU or U of M, let’s be honest.
After early struggles in training camp, Ebron improved steadily by lowering the instances of drops and working on his routes, hands, and blocking. By the end of training camp and the beginning of preseason, a diverse role had begun to emerge for the promising rookie. Unlike most tight ends in the league, Ebron would be asked to line up everywhere and do everything. That is a lot to ask from any young player, let alone a rookie…even a rookie drafted in the first round.
So when Ebron managed only 20 snaps in the first action he would see in the NFL, and with those snaps was unable to catch a single pass, many questioned the pick. This always happens when a first round pick struggles, and yet the fan base seemed more vocal this time around. Is it warranted concern? Surely the Lions would have liked to see more out of their first round pick, but at the same time they gave him limited opportunity to do so. How would he fare in his first action? Well in this case, the stat sheet isn’t entirely honest.
Ebron is credited with two targets with zero catches, but also zero drops. He was actually targeted three times in the game with one of those wiped out by penalty. On a day where Matthew Stafford played his best game as a pro, how could a single player end up with no catches despite three targets? It’s a very small sample size, but we can watch and draw our conclusions based on his play much better than we can by looking at a stat sheet.
Ebron’s first target came early in the game as he ran a deep route after lining up on the far side of the line. Corey Fuller and Golden Tate lined up on the left side of the field with Joseph Fauria inline and Ebron just outside of him. Note: No Calvin Johnson in this formation. As an obvious run play, Stafford faked the run while the Giants blitzed the middle.
With one safety over the top of Fauria, the other trailed Ebron who blew past him on his route. Ebron created a ton of space and with the deep safety otherwise engaged, had an easy shot at the end zone. Stafford didn’t put enough air under the pass, however, and Ebron was forced to come back to the ball allowing Giants safety Stevie Brown to catch up and deflect the pass as it arrived. Stafford was accurate for much of the day, but on that particular pass he should have placed it deeper and let Ebron go get it. This pass was negated by penalty.
His second pass didn’t come until the third quarter. The team had a comfortable 10 point lead at this point. Ebron lined up inline this time and ran a simple block and release to the flat. Stafford was pressured early and forced to throw the ball away quickly. He threw it low to Ebron, who had no chance to catch the pass as it nearly hit his feet. This was a pressured pass, even though it was an easy route it would have been pretty amazing if Stafford had gotten it to Ebron accurately.
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Ebron’s third pass was again inline. The Giants lined up a CB (Rodgers-Cromartie) across from him who bit on the double move. Ebron created some space and looked back for the ball. It’s hard to tell from the angle of the cameras whether Ebron lost sight of the ball and didn’t adjust back to it, or simply finished his route and tried to do his best with the throw, but regardless the throw was behind him and he was out of position to catch it. While it’s strange that Stafford would miss again to Ebron, it was actually his sixth incompletion IN A ROW at that point.
Only one of the three passes thrown his way was catchable, and it was deflected by Stevie Brown who had 8 interceptions in 2013. The Giants showed tremendous respect to Ebron in coverage, putting a cornerback or safety on him on any passing situation. How many rookie TEs were being covered by the team’s best safety? Their best CORNER? Eric Ebron was able to do that.
His individual play wasn’t why those three passes were incomplete, either. It’s easy to look at a stat sheet and see 0 catches on 2 targets and feel he did poorly. On closer inspection, Ebron played extremely well in his first game, and that’s just looking at the passes (His blocking was also exceptional). He brings more to the team than just the catches he brings in, but I’m very confident that those, too, are coming.