Free Press’ Dave Birkett & Carlos Monarrez discuss takeaways from talking with assistants, injuries and where Lions stand at bye week, Oct. 9, 2018.
Carlos Monarrez, Detroit Free Press
Eric Ebron has more than twice as many catches as the entire Detroit Lions’ tight-end room combined. He’s tied for second in the NFL in touchdown receptions, and on he’s pace to set career-highs in both yards and catches.
And yet, if the Lions were given a do-over for their March decision to cut Ebron, it’s likely they’d pass.
Despite a woeful lack of counting statistics – Lions tight ends have just 10 total catches this year; 24 tight ends across the league, including Ebron, have more – Lions tight ends coach Chris White said he’s happy with the contributions his group has made so far.
“We’re not displeased with what our tight ends are doing,” White said.
While Luke Willson, Levine Toilolo, Michael Roberts and Hakeem Valles (who was waived last week and re-signed Monday to the practice squad) have played a minimal role in the passing game, White said they’ve been a big part of the Lions’ success running the football.
In Sunday’s win over the Green Bay Packers, Willson and Toilolo helped open holes on some of the game’s most important runs. LeGarrette Blount ran behind both players in an unbalanced formation when he converted a third-and-1 on the opening drive of the game, and Toilolo made the key block on Blount’s second third-and-1 conversion in the fourth quarter.
“They’re unselfish,” White said. “All they want to do is win and help the team win in whatever role they have. But most importantly, I think (they are) just helping the run game right now with play-action passes, protections. First- and second-down throws.”
Ebron, the 10th pick of the 2014 draft, is considered a far superior receiver to any tight end the Lions have on their roster, though he’s not quite as adept a blocker in the run game.
In Detroit, Ebron served as the fourth or fifth receiving option, behind Marvin Jones, Golden Tate, Kenny Golladay and Theo Riddick.
But since the Lions released him in a cost-cutting move at the start of free agency, Ebron has become one of Andrew Luck’s favorite targets with the Indianapolis Colts.
He currently ranks second on the team with 26 catches for 255 yards, and his five touchdowns are equal to his best receiving season in Detroit.
Ebron surely would have boosted the Lions’ tight end production had he stayed in Detroit, but the team’s decision to de-emphasize the position in their passing game has been a matter of both circumstance and design.
The Lions expected Golladay to take on a bigger offensive role in his second season, which he has. But they also made a play for an Ebron pass-catching replacement in free agency, Trey Burton, and only ended up signing Willson and Toilolo when Burton picked the Chicago Bears.
Willson, who spent the last five seasons with the Seattle Seahawks, where he played primarily as the team’s No. 2 tight end, leads Lions tight ends with four catches for 29 yards.
Toilolo (three catches, 19 yards) has been used largely as a blocker, Roberts (1-15) hasn’t played since Week 2 because of a knee injury, and Valles (2-11) has played sparingly as the best pass catcher of the bunch.
White said the group is “continuing to get better in the pass game,” and it’s possible they play a bigger role on offense when the Lions return from their bye next week.
“Each week’s different, each game plan’s different in terms of matchups and things like that, so we’ll see,” White said. “But like I said, Jim Bob (Cooter, the Lions’ offensive coordinator, has) a tough job and a good job just trying to get each guy matched up the way we want, and getting each guy enough touches. It’s a good problem to have.”
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