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Tight end group a 'work in progress' for Lions

Geoff Robinson
The Detroit News
Lions tight end Luke Willson readies for a reception during OTAs.

Allen Park — For all the gripe about Eric Ebron's performance over his four years with the Lions, there sure seems to be a lot of unease about the tight end position in Detroit after Ebron was released in the offseason.

Maybe that's because nobody really knows what the Lions are going to get from the guys that will have to step in and try to replace 53 receptions and 574 yards from a year ago. But perhaps there's more in play than just lining up with a tight end who can produce in the passing game, and that much is evident by the history of the guys on the roster. 

The Lions brought in Luke Willson from Seattle, a guy that's never caught more than 22 passes in a season. Willson did, however, meet Ebron's touchdown total (four) in 2017, proving he's at least a viable option in the red zone.

Second-year pro Michael Roberts only caught four passes in 2017, veteran Levine Toilolo had 74 receptions over five seasons in Atlanta and Hakeem Valles hasn't taken any meaningful snaps over his first two seasons in the NFL.

"We're trying to figure out things personnel-wise," tight ends coach Chris White said. "I think it's a work in progress right now."

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Here's where the attention turns to run-blocking, an area the Lions have struggled with mightily over the past few seasons. It's no secret that Ebron was not the best in run protection, and the Lions have made it abundantly clear that they want to fix the run game in 2018.

"We want to run the ball better, and that's stating the obvious," White said. "If we can establish the run game, we can open up big plays in the pass game and everyone's going to benefit from it."

The Lions have a lot of playmaking options on the outside, so it seems the team has shifted the focus to bringing in tight ends who are more adept at providing an additional boost to the struggling rushing attack. Willson is one guy who has plenty of experience blocking for a solid running game in Seattle.

"The thing that's most impressive about (Willson) is he's not the biggest, but this guy is as tough a blocker as I've seen on tape," White said. "He's got that grit about him. The competitiveness to succeed is what's impressive about him."

It's obvious that White thinks Willson's presence will not only have an effect on the tight end group, but on the locker room as a whole.

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"Just being around the guy for a couple months, I think intangibly the guy has great leadership ability," White said. "He's a guy that if something's not right, he'll address it. Whatever role we figure out that's best for him, he's going to do it extremely well and with a toughness and an attitude that people around here are really going to like."

Roberts may be the best hope for a playmaking tight end down the field, but White thinks he can be so much more than that as he grows from his first year to second year in the NFL.

"We're putting pressure on him that he needs to step up to being a pro," White said. "We've told him how important he is to our success, and there's a lot of people that are counting on him. Watching (Willson) and (Toilolo) go about their daily business is really helping him. He's just got to figure out the daily grind, making one little improvement each day.

"We can't get enough time with these new faces, new offense. We really want to get better at everything."

Geoff Robinson is a freelance writer.