Caldwell: Lions still like Ebron over Donald, Beckham

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News
Eric Ebron

Phoenix — Eric Ebron struggled through his rookie season in Detroit, especially considering the expectations the team set publicly for the 10th overall pick.

The tight end is still just 21 and has plenty of time to show improvement. But there's no denying his 2014 season looked worse compared to fellow rookies Odell Beckham and Aaron Donald, the No. 12 and 13 picks respectively, who played at a Pro Bowl level immediately.

Lions coach Jim Caldwell, though, said Wednesday he has no regrets about the selection process that led them to Ebron.

"The right guy for us is the guy we took — plain and simple," Caldwell said. "And we've just got to get better. That's the way it is."

In 13 games last season, Ebron had 25 catches for 248 yards and one touchdown. He missed three games due to a hamstring injury, and the coaches said the ailment slowed his development in the middle of the season.

Caldwell described Ebron's offseason improvement as impressive, but declined to say exactly how he's made those strides.

"Don't get me wrong, it's not like he's going to all of a sudden be Charlie Sanders," Caldwell said. "But I think he's going to be much better than he was."

Even though he struggled with drops, it became quickly apparent that Ebron was the best tight end on the team, but the group failed as a whole in 2014. Veteran Brandon Pettigrew had just 10 catches for 70 yards and Joseph Fauria had just six catches for 74 yards and a touchdown, though both dealt with injuries.

Meanwhile, several of the 2014 first-round picks had the instant impact Lions general manager Martin Mayhew said he expected from Ebron. Donald had nine sacks and two forced fumbles. Wide receivers Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans and Beckham were in the top 25 in receiving yards. And several other picks in later rounds -- like receivers Jarvis Landry, John Brown and Martavis Bryant -- had more impact, too.

"Most of the guys that excelled, most guys didn't think they would excel," Caldwell said. "You have the benefit of hindsight. We all have the benefit of hindsight, right? So before it all started, you wouldn't have said that if you took a look at them, other than Sammy Watkins. So let's not play that game."

Caldwell said youth led to many of Ebron's issues. He struggled to grasp the playbook and didn't run precise routes consistently, but Caldwell did see growth from him as a blocker.

Looking back, Caldwell stands by the decision to take Ebron and expects it to pay off long term.

"I think you guys are looking at outliers," Caldwell said. "You're thinking about Odell Beckham, you're thinking about Sammy Watkins. You may be thinking about a couple of other guys that had really good years, but that's not the norm.

"The norm is like some of them that you don't know exist right now that are still on the roster but yet they start to come along and mature as time goes on. (Ebron is) in a normal progression, I think. We'd like to see it come faster. I've got patience, but I don't have a lot of time. You know how that is in this business, but I think he'll come along."