Ebron showed nice progress in his third season, hitting career highs in catches and yards while pushing his catch rate above 70 percent for the first time. He also started all 13 games he appeared in, after serving as a part-time player the two previous years. But when the Lions got close to the end zone, Ebron was surprisingly ignored. He only picked up six red-zone targets -- including three inside the 10-yard line -- as Anquan Boldin was essentially the team's go-to widebody in that area. Boldin is unsigned at press time, and although it's not quite definite he won't be back in Detroit, team brass hinted a reunion is unlikely. With the Lions lacking a clear successor for Boldin's role as a slot wideout and frequent red-zone target, Ebron could get back to the five-touchdown level we saw two years ago, or possibly even build on that. He was a first-round pick in 2014, after all, boasting 4.6 speed at 6-4, 253, though he also had trouble converting his receptions into touchdowns in college -- scoring on eight of 112 catches at UNC. While his development has perhaps come slower than expected, his yardage totals have still increased significantly each year. Ebron is the biggest primary target on the roster, and his efficiency stats show an improving player.
Few players face as big a prove-it year as Ebron, who has largely disappointed since being drafted 10th overall in 2014. Ebron improved his numbers in Year 2, but it was still a mediocre showing from a player with immense physical talent on a team that attempted the fourth-most passes in the league last season. With Calvin John-son retired, however, Ebron will have more chances to prove his worth. The Lions said they plan to use Ebron and his 4.60 40 speed more as a deep threat and look to create mismatches with his size (6-4, 265). Ebron could stand to improve his catch rate, 67.1 percent last year, 14th among TE. As a rookie, his drops were chalked up to too much thinking on the field as he was asked to learn multiple positions. But then he dropped five passes last year (T-3rd). Once he has the ball, though, he is excellent after the catch, using his agility and speed to average 6.1 YAC (5th), improving his YPT to 7.7 (12th). He was strong in the red zone, as well, catching six of eight targets to score all five of his TDs. More goal-line chances (3 of 4 inside the 10 last year, three TD) should come with Megatron out of the picture. If he makes the most of it, Ebron wouldn't be the first tight end to break out in his third year. He missed OTAs with an undisclosed injury but is expected to be healthy for training camp.
Ebron failed to live up to sky-high expectations last year as the 10th overall draft pick. He was asked to learn four positions — tight end, slot, wideout and H-back — which overwhelmed him. And with Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate gobbling up 45 percent of the team's targets, in addition to three pass-catching running backs, there weren't many opportunities for Ebron, who also missed three games with a hamstring injury. He also didn't make good use of his opportunities. He caught only 53.2 percent of his targets, 36th among qualified tight ends, and ranked eighth with one drop every 8.5 attempts. The Lions classified those as "concentration drops," a result of too much thinking while running routes. After a year of learning the playbook and the position(s), Ebron enters Year 2 with solid upside. He is expected to be the third option in the passing game, according to offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi. With Megatron and Tate as deep threats on the outside, Ebron should be free to use his size advantage (6-4, 265) against linebackers in the middle and his 4.60 speed up the seam. And with improved concentration, his athleticism should take over — he has a wide catch radius with long arms and huge hands and makes tacklers miss in the open field (5.2 yards after the catch, 9th). Ebron might have to fight for red-zone targets with Joseph Fauria, but Brandon Pettigrew likely will be relegated to a blocking role again this year.
The 10th pick in this year's NFL Draft, Ebron finds himself in an advantageous situation. The Lions hired former Saints quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi as offensive coordinator, and he plans to install a Saints-style passing attack with Ebron used like the versatile Jimmy Graham -- split wide, in the slot or in tight. The Lions, who also signed wideout Golden Tate, have a lot of receiving options, but Ebron is expected to dominate the tight-end targets. Veteran Brandon Pettigrew likely be used more as a blocker, and the 6-7 Joseph Fauria, who scored seven touchdowns last season, figures to share some of his 14 red-zone looks with Ebron. Both could be used together in the red zone. At 6-4, 245, with 4.6 speed, Ebron figures to be a mismatch down the seam, guaranteed to see single coverage with Calvin Johnson on the field. He is an excellent route runner -- the majority of his receptions at North Carolina last year came lined up as a wide receiver -- and is good after the catch. The only knock on him is his hands, which are just average, but the Lions believe he will improve. Even so, he still broke Vernon Davis' ACC record for receiving yards last year.