Humbled Ebron could be X-factor in Lions' offense

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
Eric Ebron

Allen Park — In some ways, the Lions exceeded expectations last season, by coming within a game of winning the division and making it to the playoffs. A new season is bringing new expectations.

That holds true for several players on offense, but especially for tight end Eric Ebron. In the first season under head coach Jim Caldwell and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, there were some growing pains.

After the Lions selected Ebron with the No. 10 overall pick in the draft, the transition was particularly tough for Ebron, who was not only in his first season in the NFL, but also had to learn a multi-faced position, where he was essentially a tight end, receiver and H-back.

He didn't jump right into the offensive fray, with 25 catches for 248 yards and a touchdown in 13 games last season. With a year to get acclimated to the offense and the NFL, Ebron is much more comfortable and ready to have a breakout season.

"Last year just taught me how to grow up and taught me what this league is about," he said. "I take that into every aspect of life now; it helps you mature. This league will humble anybody that steps into it — that's all it's done for me."

Niyo: '0-16 to the top' would be remarkable rise for Johnson

Ebron started seven games and missed three because of injuries. Although receiver Golden Tate flourished in his first year in the offense, Ebron said he struggled to master the terminology and all of the intricacies of his positions.

"I was learning. We had injuries, I had injuries and we were learning," Ebron said. "It's a good thing, though. Now that I'm smarter and I know the game a lot more and I'm more developed into the NFL and what it brings, I can bring out my abilities a lot easier."

The Lions' offense ranked in the middle of the league last season, but with everyone healthy, the outlook is trending up, with many eyeing Ebron as one who could increase his production significantly. He said he has specific statistical goals that he would like to reach this year, but didn't elaborate.

Where he was more outgoing and boisterous last season, Ebron has made a conscious effort this season to cut his social-media interactions and focus more on football instead. But he still hears about the criticism and negative comments.

"When I'm working out, I get that stuff read to me. My trainer is different. What he does is find every weakness you have and tries to break it in half," Ebron said. "He's very good at what he does and I'm well aware of the comments and things that people say."

Having a tougher skin has helped harden Ebron to the outside distractions and to focus more on improving himself.

That change hasn't gone unnoticed by Caldwell.

"Certainly, we can see a change and I think that's what happens to guys if they're serious about having a strong career in this league," Caldwell said. "They look at it and understand where they can improve and want to improve and I think he's set up to do just that."

Eric Ebron, right: "We have Calvin Johnson (left) and Golden Tate. ... My job is to come here and help take stress off them."

Spending more time with veterans such as Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate has helped in Ebron's maturation, as well as spending more time in the playbook, mastering his craft.

"Last year, he might be out there communicating or asking somebody, 'What (play) do I have?'" Johnson said. "He has a better hold of everything that he's doing, whether it's the blocking game or pass game. It's really encouraging to see that guy out there flying around."

That work on the practice field and in the film room could be the biggest improvements this season for Ebron and could pay off with better stats. More than that, though, he could develop into a reliable third target for quarterback Matthew Stafford after Johnson and Tate.

"We have Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate, two very good receivers. My job is to come here and help take stress off them — and that's what I'm going to do," Ebron said. "I have to make myself a threat."

Even with some improvement, he'll still have more room for growth as a second-year tight end. But with the expectations from himself and Caldwell, there will be much more work in the process.

"We anticipate he's been practicing well, that that's going to carry over. Now do I think he's going to be perfect? Absolutely not — it's tough to be perfect in this league. Do I think he's going to have some ups and downs? Absolutely. Do I think he'll be better than he was last year? No question about it."

Rod.Beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com/detnewsRodBeard

Josh Katzenstein predicts Lions' season