After letting Eric Ebron walk, Lions' efforts to land top tight end fell short

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Eric Ebron

Allen Park – The Detroit Lions had Eric Ebron under contract and let him go. He scored 14 touchdowns for the Indianapolis Colts this season. The Lions tried to swing a deal for Rob Gronkowski, but the four-time All-Pro wanted nothing to do with that and reportedly threatened to retire.

In the end, the Lions settled on Luke Willson and Levine Toilolo, a pair of free agents on one-year deals, to go with Michael Roberts, a fourth-round draft pick in 2017 who caught four passes as a rookie.

And it still went worse than expected. The trio combined for 42 catches, 450 yards and four touchdowns.

This wasn’t how general manager Bob Quinn anticipated things going down when he cut Ebron in March, as opposed to paying the former first-round pick an $8.25 million salary for the 2018 season.

“I’ll give you guys a little bit of background on the whole tight end situation,” Quinn said during his Friday news conference. “Back in March, we talked to basically every tight end on the free-agent market and tried to get those guys here. Some we were close on and some we weren’t. Some got paid an exorbitant amount of money that didn’t really produce this year, so we made a run at those guys. The Rob Gronkowski thing is well documented."

More: Lions GM Bob Quinn squashes talk of trading QB Matthew Stafford

In free agency, the Lions had been rumored to be interested in Philadelphia’s Trey Burton, but the Bears swooped in with a four-year, $32 million offer. Jimmy Graham landed in Seattle thanks to a three-year, $30 pact, while Cameron Brate re-signed with Tampa Bay two days before free agency opened, netting a lucrative six-year, $41 million extension.

In his first season with the Bears, Burton caught 54 passes for 569 yards and six scores, while Graham caught 55 passes for 636 yards and two touchdowns.

Quinn also claimed he made a run at snagging a top tight end at the trade deadline, talking to three or four teams about a deal. He even cleared some extra cap space around that time, restructuring wide receiver Marvin Jones' contract, just in case.

“When you’re getting down to the days before the trade deadline, like I said about the tight ends, we talked to a lot of other teams about some tight ends, who are making some pretty significant salaries,” Quinn said. “So, you never want to say, ‘I can’t do a deal because I don’t have the cap space.’ That’s not good business. There were deals being talked about which were not close, but I made the decision to give us the cap space so come the Tuesday, if a trade was there, I didn’t have to run down and chase down Marvin Jones Jr. to sign a contract renegotiation.”

It’s unclear who Quinn was targeting at the deadline, but Brate was reportedly on the block. He finished with just 30 receptions in the first year of his new deal.