Lions’ decision on Eric Ebron could shape free agency plans
This is the seventh in a series looking at positional needs for the Detroit Lions in free agency. Teams can begin negotiating with free agents on March 12. The signing period opens March 14 at 4 p.m.
Allen Park – With a talented trio of targets under contract, the Detroit Lions are in good position at wide receiver entering free agency. The biggest decision the team faces at the position is whether to extend Golden Tate later this offseason.
Tate is entering the final year of his contract and has been a model of consistency for the Lions, catching at least 90 passes each of his four years with the team.
The other decision is what to do with TJ Jones. He’s a restricted free agent, and according to reports, the team doesn’t plan to offer him a one-year, $1.9 million tender. The Lions could still re-sign the young veteran, for less money or multiple years, and should strongly consider it after his 30-catch breakout in 2017. Jones also brings extra value as a backup return man to Jamal Agnew.
But what the Lions do at tight end carries significantly more intrigue.
There have been multiple reports the team is listening to offers for Eric Ebron and are open to dealing the former first-round pick. He’s coming off a strong second half last season, and at 24 years old, there remains plenty of upside.
Ebron is scheduled to work the 2018 season under a fifth-year option of his rookie deal, which will pay him $8.25 million. That’s currently the seventh-biggest cap hit at his position.
If the Lions do ship him out, they’ll have a significant void to fill. Michael Roberts, a fourth-round pick out of Toledo last year, would be expected to pick up some of the slack. He vastly improved as a blocker throughout the course of his rookie season, and proved he has receiving chops at the collegiate level, particularly in the red zone.
That said, Roberts would be the only tight end on the roster who played meaningful snaps last season and additions would be necessary.
The free agent market is led by Jimmy Graham and Tyler Eifert.
Graham has been one of the top receiving tight ends in the NFL the past seven seasons, but his numbers dipped last season, most notably his yards per reception, which were a career-low 9.1. And if Lions fans are frustrated by Ebron’s issues with drops, it should be noted that Graham has always struggled in that department. He put seven on the ground last season, more than any other tight end.
As for Eifert, he’s immensely talented, but has struggled to stay on the field. After catching 13 touchdowns in 13 games in 2015, he’s missed 22 games the past two years with back injuries.
Perhaps the best free-agent option to replace Ebron would be Trey Burton. A backup in Philadelphia, he caught 60 passes for 575 yards and six touchdowns over the past two seasons. As a quick, undersized option, he could adequately fill the F-type role currently manned by Ebron.
Regardless of what the Lions do with Ebron, the team will probably want to keep a blocker-first, in-line tight end on the roster. Darren Fells did an adequate job in that role and could certainly be re-signed.
Lions WRs and TEs under contract: Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, Kenny Golladay, Bradley Marquez, Andy Jones, Dontez Ford, Eric Ebron, Michael Roberts, Hakeem Valles, Brandon Barnes.
Lions free agents: TJ Jones, Darren Fells.
Top free-agent WRs: Allen Robinson, Sammy Watkins, Paul Richardson, Terrelle Pryor, Jordan Matthews, Mike Wallace and Marqise Lee.
Top free-agent TEs: Jimmy Graham, Tyler Eifert, Trey Burton, and Austin Seferian-Jenkins.