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Katzenstein: No need to pass judgment on Eric Ebron yet

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

Eric Ebron's career potential is still shrouded in mystery more than halfway through his rookie season with the Lions.

In Sunday's 14-6 loss to the Cardinals, the Lions made a concerted effort to involve Ebron in the game. He played 33 snaps, more than Kellen Davis' 25 and Joseph Fauria's potentially telling four, and despite finishing with a career-high four receptions, the tight end gained just 22 yards.

Ebron also looked lost on at least two blocks — one of which led to a Matthew Stafford interception — after showing improvement in that area earlier in the season. So after missing the last three games, he actually had a negative impact Sunday, though the same can be said of most offensive players.

Against a worse defense, Ebron might have turned his short catches into big gains, and after month off due to a hamstring injury, he still could have been readjusting to the game speed, which is completely understandable. But for now the Lions are still waiting for him to produce the game-breaking plays he did at North Carolina. He has just 14 catches for 125 yards and a touchdown in seven games with the Lions.

There's no reason to think Ebron, the 10th overall pick, won't become what the Lions and many other teams expected he could be, but with the impatience of fans these days, the pressure for him to make splash plays will continue to mount. And if Ebron's demeanor is any indication, he's hearing all of it.

As a first-round pick, Ebron will forever be compared to the players selected after him. Former Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan, the 11th pick, has played well since entering the Titans' starting lineup, and former Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald, the 13th pick, is living up to the Geno Atkins comparisons so far with the Rams. Both of those were clear positions of need for the Lions, but if you've watched Brandon Pettigrew at all this year, tight end was, too.

But Lions fans who have already written off Ebron — and there are way too many of them — should look at No. 12 pick Odell Beckham, the former LSU wide receiver who is balling week after week for the Giants.

Beckham missed the first four games with a hamstring injury, and Giants fans were labeling him a bust in September. In six games, Beckham has 31 catches for 463 yards and is averaging 119 yards in his last three games, even with Eli Manning throwing the ball.

NFL fans are becoming increasingly impatient, and for whatever reason, now more than ever, they can't wait to call someone a bust.

Johnny Manziel must be a bust because he didn't beat Brian Hoyer for the starting quarterback job in Cleveland. Jadeveon Clowney must be a bust because he's been injured. And because Ebron had some drops in training camp, plenty of people hoping for failure have been calling him a bust since August.

If Aaron Rodgers' first three years played out as they did in 2014, he would've been labeled a bust, too. A first-round pick who couldn't supplant an interception-happy veteran? He's never going to make it!

So let's steal from the best player in the league briefly and just R-E-L-A-X. If you wish failure on other people, be my guest and call Ebron whatever disparaging name you'd like. Meanwhile, I'll try to make some sense of what we've seen from him so far.

Lions coaches and quarterback Matthew Stafford deserve plenty of blame for Ebron's lack of production. All offseason Ebron discussed how difficult it was to learn the playbook for his complex position, and if that was the case, the coaches should've adjusted to simplify his role. Ebron also barely saw the field the first few games as Fauria cut into his playing time, and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi seems convinced that constant substitutions somehow benefit the team more than having the best players stay on the field.

Then, there's Stafford, who did nothing to get Ebron involved right away. Julius Thomas had just one catch his first two NFL seasons. In the season opener in 2013, Peyton Manning gave him five catches for 110 yards and two touchdowns, and he's been a stud ever since.

Stafford has missed several opportunities to hit Ebron for big plays, including one on Sunday. On a third down in the second quarter, Ebron was in line on the right side with a linebacker who was clearly blitzing and a safety across from him. Ebron was open right away, but Stafford never looked his way.

Ebron still needs to show more intensity when he does have his opportunities, but with the Lions' offense struggling, the coaches and Stafford need to continue to see what he can do. However, those looks shouldn't come at the expense of Golden Tate or Calvin Johnson, which is why there's no reason to rush to judgment on Ebron's career.

But the talent is there, and if the Lions can use it better this year, maybe the offense will start to turn things around.

Around the NFC North

* The Packers (7-3) throttled the Eagles, 53-20, and have scored 50-plus points in three straight weeks. Looking at their schedule, it's hard to see them dropping more than one or two games the rest of the season.

* The Bears (4-6) ended their three-game winning streak with a 21-13 win over the Vikings (4-6). Jay Cutler apparently responded to all the criticism and ludicrous benching talk and had 330 yards and three touchdowns, though he threw two interceptions, too.

* Minnesota, meanwhile, can't be thrilled with Teddy Bridgewater's inconsistent play. He had just 158 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

Around the NFL

* The same Rams (4-6) team that lost to the Vikings, 34-6, in Week 1 beat the Broncos, 22-7, on Sunday, further proof that any NFL team can win at any time — except the Raiders.

* With a 24-20 win over the Seahawks (6-4), the Chiefs are now 7-3 and tied for first place in the AFC West. Running back Jamaal Charles is the least talked about superstar in the league.

* Tampa Bay wide receiver Mike Evans is clearly the frontrunner for offensive rookie of the year with 794 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. In Sunday's 27-7 win in Washington, he had seven catches for 209 yards and two touchdowns, and he's had at least seven catches and at least 124 yards in three straight games. He could soon be a top-flight receiver.

jkatzenstein@detroitnews.com

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