By: Will Burchfield
Eric Ebron has long drawn the ire of Lions fans, but things reached a new level Sunday afternoon.
After dropping one pass in the end zone in the first quarter and another for a potential first down in the fourth, Ebron was showered in boos at Ford Field during the Lions’ 27-24 loss to the Panthers.
Make that deluged, drenched, drowned.
It was his second poor performance at home this season, the other coming in Week 3 versus the Falcons. In the aftermath of his first letdown, which also included a pair of drops, Ebron owned up to it via Twitter.
“Poor performance by me. I have to learn how to deal with adversity throughout the game. I’ll be on my grind all week see y’all next week,” he wrote.
His message on Sunday was much different:
Fellow tight end Weslye Saunders, a free agent who last played for the Colts in 2014, cautioned Ebron against going after fans on Twitter. But Ebron clarified he wasn’t trying to pick a fight.
“I’m just asking them to see the bigger picture,” Ebron replied.
The bigger picture, right now, is that Darren Fells is slowly replacing Ebron as the Lions’ number one tight end. Signed in the offseason primarily for his blocking ability — his bio on the team’s website literally reads, “He comes to the Lions after establishing himself as a dependable run-blocking tight end — Fells has shown ability as a pass-catcher in each of the past two games.
He grabbed a career-high four passes for 40 yards — and four first downs — in a Week 4 win over the Vikings. And he snared both of his targets for two touchdowns on Sunday.
Asked why he thinks his role in the offense is growing, Fells said, “It’s just one of those things that if I get an opportunity, I’m just going to do what I can to make plays. But I’m not seeing that right now. I’m seeing what we need to do to get the W.”
Fells has been targeted nine times this season and has eight catches. Ebron has been targeted 23 times and has 12 catches.
He tipped his cap to Fells after Sunday’s game.
Fells is a load at 6’7, 280 pounds, and he can rumble for yards after the catch. He also has a soft set of hands.
Asked if Fells provides something at the tight end position that Ebron can not, Jim Caldwell simply said, “Different styles.”
Matthew Stafford, who has seen a number of his passes slip out of Ebron’s hands since the team selected him tenth overall in the 2014 draft, compared by the two tight ends by saying, “One’s a giant dude, the other dude’s not as big, I don’t know. The other guy’s real fast. They’re both talented players, both have their roles in this offense. We do a great job of utilizing them in their roles.”
Ebron deserves credit for increasing his production in each of his first three seasons. That career arc had him setting his sights on a Pro Bowl appearance entering his fourth. But he’s also struggled mightily with drops, another category in which his numbers have risen with each year. He had four drops in 2014, five in 2015 and seven in 2016.
Ebron’s drop rate of 8.2 percent last season was the highest mark in the league among players with more than 50 targets.
He already has four drops this season, which ranks near the top of the league.
Both drops Sunday proved costly for the Lions, especially the first, which hit Ebron in the chest and would have resulted in a touchdown. The Lions, it should be remembered, lost by three points.
Asked how difficult it is to deal with inconsistency from his pass-catching tight end, Stafford said, “I go right back to him. He had a nice catch a little bit later in another two-minute drive. He’s a football player, he’s a tough guy, he works his tail off, so I’m going to keep going to him.
“The first ball that was in the end zone would’ve been a hell of a catch. That wasn’t the best throw of my life, either. We all have to play a little bit better, myself first.”
Caldwell, as he often has in the past, defended Ebron by saying, “There’s not anybody that can say they played perfectly out there. Just like anything else, we’ll go back to work and get him better. That’s the key.”
It’s hard to identify the root cause of Ebron’s drops, other than to say he just doesn’t have reliable hands. Caldwell, for his part, doesn’t think it’s part of a larger mental struggle.
“Wouldn’t be so certain that’s the case. He came back and caught one at the end there. He ended up catching a couple here and there, but let’s face it, he wasn’t our problem. It just doesn’t boil down to one player. We had a number of things go wrong,” Caldwell said.
Ebron finished the day with one catch on four targets for six yards. He also went a long time without seeing a ball after his first drop. It was arguably the worst game of his career.
The Lions picked up Ebron’s 2018 option in May. It’s worth about $8.2 million, but it’s only guaranteed for injury.