Eric Ebron being shopped around? What that could mean for Lions at TE

With free agency approaching (March 14), we're analyzing the tight end position on the Detroit Lions.

2018 cap hits of top returnees:

Eric Ebron: $8.25 million

Michael Roberts: $704,811

Hakeem Valles: $555,000

Brandon Barnes: $480,000

Pending free agents: Darren Fells

Key stat: After a rough first half of the 2017 season, Ebron appeared to play like the first-round pick Martin Mayhew and Jim Caldwell always hoped he'd be, finishing the season with 53 catches for 574 yards and four touchdowns. Of course, Mayhew was long gone by then, and Caldwell was let go following the season. Ebron, the No. 10 overall pick in 2014, remains.

Money matters: Other than Ebron, who is on a non-guaranteed fifth-year option, there's minimal money in the position. Roberts is in his second year of a rookie contract. If Detroit wanted to spend capital here, it should -- and that could include bringing back Fells, who did his job as a blocking tight end last year. Fells also won't be a bank-breaker.

Big picture: Detroit needs to figure out what it wants to do long-term with Ebron. ESPN Insider Adam Schefter reported Tuesday night that Ebron's name came up in possible trade discussion at the combine -- the second time in six months his name has been floated to be on the move. The Lions had fielded calls about a potential Ebron deal around last season's trade deadline, too. Schefter reported Tuesday night that the "Lions were listening." Ebron responded to this on social media with an emoji.

If the Lions move Ebron, that changes a lot of things at the position. First, it makes tight end a huge need with Michael Roberts the No. 1 tight end under contract. It would open up the possibility of taking a tight end in the draft and would make it a potential priority in free agency. It would also clear some cap room for Detroit to make some of those moves.

If the Lions think 2018 is it for Ebron with the franchise, leaning toward the draft and free agency for a replacement makes sense. Fells doesn't have a lot of football on him -- he was a pro basketball player before making the transition -- but he will be 32 years old this fall. Roberts has potential but was a healthy scratch for the finale -- a game in which he might have seen a lot of playing time -- due to a violation of team rules. He needs to show more maturity in order to be trusted, particularly with a new coaching staff coming in.

Ebron's future, though, is the big decision for Detroit to make. As it stands, Ebron is Detroit's second-biggest free-agent question for next offseason, behind Golden Tate. Although it would seem unlikely the Lions use the franchise tag on Ebron at this juncture, this year's tag number is $9.846 million -- a little more than $1.5 million more than the option Ebron is playing under now. Again, it's not likely at this point, but if Ebron plays well this season, then it could be a conversation for the future.

What the future of this position looks like, though, entirely depends on how the Lions feel about Ebron, who played 16 games for the first time in his career in 2017.

The game plan: Again, this depends on what the organization wants to do with Ebron in the future. If Detroit wants to lock him up long-term -- and that seems more unlikely considering there's a chance they move him -- that would answer one of their questions at the position. He's still primarily a receiver but has improved as a blocker.

If Ebron isn't in the long-term plans, and all general manager Bob Quinn has said on this is that he's on the roster, then tight end becomes a draft need and possibly a need in free agency.

The big name in free agency is Jimmy Graham, who would be an enticing target for Matthew Stafford. Except for one thing: Ebron had more yards (574 to 520) and fewer drops (seven to five) than Graham last season. Receptions were about equal (57 for Graham, 53 for Ebron). Touchdowns were the big difference, but some of that is the result of opportunity. Ebron is much younger. If Ebron ends up being gone, that could open up the possibility for trying to sign Graham or taking a chance on the talented (but often injured) Tyler Eifert or Philadelphia's Trey Burton. After Graham, they might be the best two tight ends on the market.

It isn't a stellar free-agent class otherwise, but midrange options can be found, either in Fells, Ed Dickson, Virgil Green or Ben Watson. Most of those players would be on shorter deals, other than Dickson. Luke Willson could be another potential target depending on how the Lions want to handle the position.

If Detroit tries to replenish during the draft and hangs on to Ebron, Notre Dame's Durham Smythe and Wisconsin's Troy Fumagalli could be Day 3 options. NC State's Jaylen Samuels is intriguing from a versatility standpoint, also on Day 3. If Ebron is moved -- and again, it's an if at this point -- and tight end becomes a bigger priority, then South Dakota State's Dallas Goedert, Oklahoma's Mark Andrews, Penn State's Mike Gesicki and South Carolina's Hayden Hurst could all be more in play.