Mobile, Ala. – For Detroit Lions fans, there was no escaping Eric Ebron this year.
If you watched any highlight shows during the season, the tight end was a weekly fixture, scoring 14 touchdowns during the regular season and another in the Indianapolis Colts’ wild-card playoff victory. That was enough to earn him his first Pro Bowl selection.
Then Thursday night, some final salt for the wound, Ebron teamed up with Colts quarterback Andrew Luck to win the “Best Hands” competition at the Pro Bowl Skills Showdown in Orlando.
The Lions tossed Ebron aside, cutting him loose last March instead of paying him the $8.25 million they would have owed him in 2019. The team thought there were better alternatives than paying the former first-rounder, including an attempted trade for Rob Gronkowski and the failed pursuit of a couple of the top names in free agency.
Ultimately, the Lions settled on the trio of Luke Willson, Levine Toilolo and Mike Roberts. The group combined for a disappointing 43 receptions, 450 yards and four touchdowns, much of it coming on a late-season surge from Toilolo.
Willson and Toilolo are set to be unrestricted free agents this offseason and it’s expected the Lions will make another go at revamping the room for new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell.
“Yeah, that’s a position we’re looking at,” general manager Bob Quinn said during a radio interview with Sirius XM earlier this week. “We have a couple guys that are free agents coming up, so we have to make decisions on those guys. And this is a great class, from what I’ve seen so far in the draft, so that’s something we’re going to be looking at really close.”
The draft seems like the most likely avenue to find a top option. The upcoming free agency group is underwhelming, topped by names like Jared Cook, Tyler Eifert and Jesse James.
The draft, on the other hand, appears to be loaded with talent, headlined by a trio of juniors – the Iowa tandem of T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, and Alabama’s Irv Smith. The senior class, including the group of six at the Senior Bowl, are less exciting, but offer Quinn and the Lions some intriguing mid-round options.
LSU’s Foster Moreau and Boston College’s Tommy Sweeney didn’t produce massive receiving numbers in college, but are well-rounded options.
Moreau averaged 23 receptions his final two seasons with the Tigers, while Sweeney topped out at 36 grabs for 512 yards as a junior. But both showed better than expected route running and hands during this week of practice and have established reputations as above average blockers.
“People run the ball all the time in the NFL,” Sweeney said. “You can’t really just be a one-faceted player. I think as far as being able to do both, being versatile, you’re on the field all the time in pass situation and run situation and the defense can’t key into a tendency whether you’re out there or not. I think that’s really what sets me apart, being a combo tight end.”
From smaller schools there are Utah State’s Dax Raymond and Stetson’s Donald Parham.
Raymond’s blocking will be a work in progress, having played in an air-raid offense, but his 6-foot-4, 249-pound frame is suited for the challenge.
“I want to show that I can block because a lot of guys think I’m more of a pass-catching tight end,” Raymond said. “We were a lot of spread last season, so I didn’t have my hand down (in the dirt) much, but I think this is a great opportunity for me to show, yeah, this guy can be a three-down tight end.”
Parham is an anomaly at the position, standing 6-foot-8 and weighing 243 pounds. He’s unlikely to offer much as a blocker, naturally struggling with both leverage and the ability to anchor at that weight, but for a creative coordinator, he could be a matchup nightmare given his height and 36-inch long arms, the biggest wingspan of any player in Mobile.
For comparison, Parham is an inch taller with arms three-inches longer than former Lions’ red-zone threat Joseph Fauria.
Parham was a highly productive receiver for Stetson, earning FCS All-American honors with 85 catches for 1,319 yards and 13 scores.