Allen Park — Amidst the flurry of free-agent agreements being reported around the league this week, the biggest move the Detroit Lions made prior to Wednesday’s start of the new league year was a subtraction rather than an addition.
After four seasons, the team surprisingly released former first-round draft pick Eric Ebron.
The move removes Ebron’s $8.25 million salary off the books and will clear up $7.7 million in cap space as the Lions look to reshape the roster via free agency.
Partially a victim of where he was taken in the draft, Ebron was never able to meet the lofty expectations that came with being a top-10 pick. Frustrations among fans were magnified by the players the Lions passed up to select him. Six of the next seven players taken after Ebron have been named to at least one Pro Bowl. From that group, defensive tackle Aaron Donald, wide receiver Odell Beckham and offensive lineman Zack Martin quickly developed into elite players at their positions.
Meanwhile, Ebron struggled to pick of the playbook as a rookie and finished the year with just 25 catches, before making steady strides in his second and third years. In 2016, he set career-highs with 61 receptions and 711 yards.
Expected to continue that upward trajectory last season, he stumbled out of the blocks, recording 18 grabs for 195 yards through eight games. He also had issues holding on to some catchable passes, a common theme during his time in Detroit. Each perceived drop drew a loud chorus of boos from the home crowd and some receptions drew mock cheers. That led to some venting after an October game.
“Listen, 99.9 percent of the people in that audience cannot come out here and do that,” Ebron said. “Yes, those were tough grabs. I get paid to make those grabs, yes. But too damn tough? I mean, cut a brother some slack. It’s rough, you know?”
The team shopped Ebron at the trading deadline and he seemed resigned to the possibility he wouldn’t finish out the year in Detroit, but a deal never came to fruition. It proved fortunate for both sides as he had a strong finish to the campaign, nearly doubling his production from the first half with 35 receptions, 379 yards and three scores the final eight weeks.
The Lions picked up the fifth-year option on Ebron’s contract after the season, a one-year deal that would have become guaranteed at 4 p.m. on Wednesday. The team reportedly continued to field offers throughout the week, but never found a taker. Now he’ll have an opportunity to explore free agency a year early, and should draw serious interest given his skill set and age.
Ebron’s departure leaves the Lions short-staffed at tight end. Michael Roberts, the second-year pro out of Toledo, is the only player on the roster who saw meaningful snaps last season. As a rookie, he was primarily asked to focus on blocking and finished the year with four receptions.
Darren Fells, the third part of the rotation, reportedly agreed to a three-year, $12 million deal with the Cleveland Browns on Wednesday.
And a thin market has already seen some of the top options reach agreements. Jimmy Graham is headed to Green Bay for a three-year contract, and Trey Burton, who many speculated would draw interest from the Lions if they moved on from Ebron, agreed to a four-year, $32 million deal with the Chicago Bears.
That leaves Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Tyler Eifert, who has missed most of the past two seasons because of back injuries, and Martellus Bennett, who was unceremoniously dumped by the Packers last year, in the middle of his first season with the team, as the best remaining options.