ALLEN PARK, Mich. – Eric Ebron sat in front of his corner locker last month, surrounded by the custom cleats he has worn all season long and the reality of another season coming to a close. This, though, was different for the Detroit Lions tight end.
After three years in the NFL, the team’s first-round pick in the 2014 draft seems to have finally found his place in the Detroit offense and the league. He knows as long as he’s in Detroit he’s going to hear about the players the Lions passed over to take him – Odell Beckham Jr., Taylor Lewan, Aaron Donald, Zack Martin – but he has started to come into his own as well.
Ebron set career-bests in receptions (61) and yards (711). He was eighth among tight ends in yards, ahead of Jordan Reed, Jason Witten and Martellus Bennett. He was 10th in catches, in front of Bennett, Gary Barnidge and Antonio Gates. For the first time in his career, opponents started to scheme defenses to take him out of games instead of leaving him in single coverage and taking their chances with him being unable to make a play.
“The biggest thing I wanted to do this year was become a factor so I can help my team and my outside receivers,” Ebron said. “I felt like that’s what they brought me here for and that’s what I need to do. I feel like that’s what any tight end in this day and age needs to do so they can open things up so that their offense can be what we wanted it to be.
“I felt like I’ve done that when I was healthy and I feel like I can continue to do more, as always. I’ll always feel like I can do more.”
And that hits on three things for Ebron. The first is his health. He set career-highs despite playing hurt essentially the entire year. When he was asked in Week 17 how banged up he was, he laughed. He has dealt with ankle and knee injuries since the preseason and missed only three games – mostly because he was that injured. He already said one of his 2017 goals is not to get hurt, something both in and out of his control.
There are also the drops. While he improved in this space in 2016, he still had five of them. Only Gates and San Francisco’s Garrett Celek dropped more passes among tight ends. He also knows he didn’t get into the end zone much. He scored two touchdowns (one receiving, one rushing), but he felt he became more of a full-field tight end this season, evidenced by his statistics despite the lack of end-zone attention.
Finally there’s the production. Ebron became a reliable option for quarterback Matthew Stafford this season. During Detroit’s stretch of eight wins in nine games, Ebron was one of Stafford's most-targeted options. And he caught 70.9 percent of his targets.
But Ebron wants more. That, he said, is where he sees his next step for 2017.
“So close to a thousand, man, it’s to just get that,” Ebron said. “That’s pretty much everyone’s ultimate goal is to have a 1,000-yard season. That’s definitely next year’s goal. Close to it, but not close enough. So I gotta push towards that.
“I always set goals and one of my biggest goals for next year is to not get injured, you know. I can actually stay in the game and fulfill most of my goals because missing three games and Minnesota shutting me out one kind of hurts.”
The question now is whether 2017 will be Ebron’s final season in Detroit. He has improved every year and put up statistics making him a top 10 tight end. He started to be a mismatch issue in the middle of the field the second half of the season.
But will general manager Bob Quinn pick up Ebron’s fifth-year option? Ebron said he hasn’t thought about it yet, but felt he did “a good job” this year. He also has matured, both on the field and off it, becoming more of a professional. Quinn said the option decision, which doesn’t have to come for months, is “way down” on his radar with the draft and free agency being higher priorities.
But before the season, Quinn said by the end of the third season, a team typically knows what it has in a tight end. And he thought Ebron had a productive season.
“He battled through the preseason injury that he had,” Quinn said. “Then he had a couple other things that he worked through. I think Eric was probably his healthiest the last month of the season and that’s the kind of player that Eric can be if he can be out there.”
If that’s what the Lions believe, it makes sense for them to pick up his option because the Ebron who showed up the second half of the season was a player who can help change a game. And that’s exactly what he wants to be.