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Player Spotlight: Eric Ebron

A detailed examination of Eric Ebron's fantasy prospects for 2016

The "No Growth" Outlook Makes NO SENSE

At the time of this article, Eric Ebron's consensus ranking among the staff is TE13:

With apologies to many of my fellow staff members, that ranking makes NO SENSE.

  1. Ebron ranked TE13 last year -- the consensus ranking assumes ZERO growth year over year
  2. Ebron is entering his 3rd season, and is still an ascending player
  3. The Lions are a pass happy offense that came alive in the second half of the season under OC Jim Bob Cooter
  4. Calvin Johnson retired
  5. Free agent Marvin Jones is incapable of replacing Calvin Johnson by himself (if at all)
  6. He's yet to play a full 16-game schedule

Further growth should be the baseline expectation

NFL players rarely peak in their first or second season, unless they've been an abject failure and their role gets reduced. Ebron certainly doesn't fit into that category. As a rookie, he was a part-time player and limited to 25 receptions for 248 yards and 1 touchdown. His limited role may have disappointed some overzealous fantasy owners but it was in-line with reasonable expectations for a rookie tight end. Even the best tight ends in NFL history were limited contributors as rookies; and Ebron had to not only learn a complex NFL offense but had to work hard on his blocking. In 2015, Ebron showed promising growth in all facets:
 
  • Targets -- 70 (+23)
  • Receptions -- 47 (+22)
  • Catch Rate -- 67% (+14%)
  • Yards per Catch -- 11.4 (+1.5)
  • Yards -- 537 (+289)
  • Touchdowns -- 5 (+4)
  • TD Rate -- 11% (+7%)
Those numbers were good enough for TE13 last year, in spite of Ebron missing two early season games. By all accounts Ebron is in phenomenal shape entering training camp, and will have an offseason leaning all the nuances of OC Jim Bob Cooter's offense -- yet he's not going to show ANY growth? Once again, that defies logic.
 

Calvin Johnson's Retirement = Targets Aplenty

The Lions aren't going to be able to replace Calvin Johnson; at least not entirely.
 

Calvin Johnson as a % of Lions Offense (2009-2015 aka the Stafford Years)

  • 1,069 targets (24% of team's 4,454 attempts)
  • 605 receptions (22.4%)
  • 9,532 yards (31.6%)
  • 67 touchdowns (35.6%)
Johnson accrued 149 targets last season, averaging 9.3 per game. Since we expect little to no drop-off in total passing attempts this season, that means everyone on the roster is going to be seeing more looks potentially. Three Lions were targeted more than Ebron in 2015:
 
  • Calvin Johnson (149 times) -- Must be replaced
  • Golden Tate (129 times) -- Ascends into Stafford's #1 target, but is he the caliber of player to handle 150+ targets?
  • Theo Riddick (99 times) -- A key outlet as a receiver out of the backfield but was targeted the 2nd most of any RB in the league last year. Very few running backs are ever targeted 100+ times, so it's hard to imagine Riddick seeing increased looks

What About Marvin Jones?

Marvin Jones was signed to a 5-year, $40 million contract with $20 million guaranteed. He'll 'replace' Calvin Johnson in the starting lineup but that's where the similarities end. Let me be clear, if the Lions really plan on replacing Calvin Johnson's 9 targets per game with Marvin Jones, the offense is going to struggle mightily.

  • Jones has missed 33% of his NFL career due to injury (Johnson missed 6% of his games)
  • Jones has never been 1,000-yard receiver
  • Jones is 6'2", 198 lbs. (vs 6'5", 239 lbs. for Megatron)
  • Jones ran a 4.5 40 before his foot injuries (Johnson ran a 4.35)
  • Jones has averaged 12.9 yards per catch (vs. 15.9 for Johnson)

Let's Keep This Simple -- Eric Ebron Should See More Targets in 2016 Barring Injury

Any way you slice and dice the situation, Ebron will be more targeted this year. If you're more optimistic about Marvin Jones, Ebron may only see 80-85 targets this year (1 more per game), but if you're like me, 95+ targets seems like a lock.

Red Zone Specialist

While overall targets are an important consideration, the real reason why fantasy owners should be excited by Ebron is his ability to replace Calvin Johnson in the red zone. Take a look at the Lions' red zone targets over the last two seasons:

Detroit Lions Red Zone Targets (2014-2015)

FirstLastPosTgtsRecsTDs
Calvin Johnson WR 33 17 12
Golden Tate WR 32 23 8
Theo Riddick RB 24 19 6
Eric Ebron TE 13 8 6
Reggie Bush RB 11 5 0
Joique Bell RB 8 5 1
Lance Moore WR 7 6 3
Joseph Fauria TE 6 2 1
Ameer Abdullah RB 6 5 1
Timothy Wright TE 4 2 2
Corey Fuller WR 3 1 1
Jeremy Ross WR 3 1 0
Brandon Pettigrew TE 3 1 1
Jordan Thompson TE 1 0 0
Michael Burton RB 1 1 1
Ryan Broyles WR 1 1 0
Jed Collins RB 1 1 1

Not surprisingly, Calvin Johns is Matthew Stafford's top target in the red zone. Golden Tate, in spite of his size, was targeted as much but his TD rate was far less impressive (25%). Ebron was targeted 13 times, but scored 6 touchdowns (46% rate).

Let's broaden our look at TD% to the entire league, to better emphasize how illogical it would be to target the likes of Golden Tate or Marvin Jones at the expense of more red zone looks for Ebron.

NFL Red Zone TD% (2014-2015, Minimum 10 Targets)

RankFirstLastTgtsRecsTDsTD%
1 Timothy Wright 11 8 8 72.7%
2 Tyler Eifert 16 12 11 68.8%
3 Ted Ginn 11 7 6 54.5%
4 Julius Thomas 24 18 12 50.0%
5 Anthony Fasano 12 9 6 50.0%
6 Seth Roberts 10 6 5 50.0%
7 Kendall Wright 15 9 7 46.7%
8 Allen Robinson 26 16 12 46.2%
9 Dwayne Allen 13 9 6 46.2%
10 Eric Ebron 13 8 6 46.2%
11 Rob Gronkowski 36 22 16 44.4%
12 Antonio Gates 32 16 14 43.8%
13 Devin Funchess 12 5 5 41.7%
14 Kamar Aiken 17 12 7 41.2%
15 Richard Rodgers 20 13 8 40.0%
16 Tavon Austin 10 4 4 40.0%
17 Andre Holmes 10 6 4 40.0%
18 Mike Wallace 28 16 11 39.3%
19 Dez Bryant 28 12 11 39.3%
20 Brandon Marshall 42 22 16 38.1%
21 Josh Hill 16 9 6 37.5%
22 Steve Johnson 16 10 6 37.5%
23 Greg Jennings 16 10 6 37.5%
24 Calvin Johnson 33 17 12 36.4%
25 Crockett Gillmore 11 6 4 36.4%
26 Travis Kelce 25 16 9 36.0%
27 Jeremy Maclin 28 19 10 35.7%
28 Kyle Rudolph 14 7 5 35.7%
29 Jordan Matthews 31 20 11 35.5%
30 Torrey Smith 23 11 8 34.8%
31 Allen Hurns 23 14 8 34.8%
32 Ben Watson 23 15 8 34.8%
33 Jimmy Graham 30 15 10 33.3%
34 Mychal Rivera 15 9 5 33.3%
35 Donte Moncrief 15 10 5 33.3%
36 Malcom Floyd 15 8 5 33.3%
37 Gavin Escobar 12 5 4 33.3%
38 Emmanuel Sanders 28 20 9 32.1%
39 Gary Barnidge 25 10 8 32.0%
40 John Brown 22 12 7 31.8%
41 Martavis Bryant 22 9 7 31.8%
42 Roddy White 22 12 7 31.8%
43 Randall Cobb 48 28 15 31.3%
44 A.J. Green 32 16 10 31.3%
45 Jordan Reed 32 21 10 31.3%
46 Odell Beckham Jr 45 30 14 31.1%
47 Doug Baldwin 29 18 9 31.0%
48 Lance Moore 13 8 4 30.8%
49 Dwayne Harris 10 6 3 30.0%
50 Eric Decker 44 21 13 29.5%
51 Michael Floyd 17 7 5 29.4%
52 Coby Fleener 24 13 7 29.2%
53 Scott Chandler 21 12 6 28.6%
54 Jermaine Gresham 21 11 6 28.6%
55 Marques Colston 21 11 6 28.6%
56 Harry Douglas 14 9 4 28.6%
57 Austin Seferian-Jenkins 14 6 4 28.6%
58 Antonio Brown 58 36 16 27.6%
59 James Jones 29 13 8 27.6%
60 Jason Witten 22 12 6 27.3%
61 Ladarius Green 11 6 3 27.3%
62 Will Tye 11 5 3 27.3%
63 Jeremy Kerley 11 6 3 27.3%
64 Pierre Garcon 26 11 7 26.9%
65 Owen Daniels 26 14 7 26.9%
66 Larry Fitzgerald 30 21 8 26.7%
67 Brent Celek 15 9 4 26.7%
68 Danny Amendola 15 11 4 26.7%
69 Alshon Jeffery 38 16 10 26.3%
70 Sammy Watkins 19 9 5 26.3%
71 Robert Woods 19 11 5 26.3%
72 Larry Donnell 31 16 8 25.8%
73 Martellus Bennett 31 17 8 25.8%
74 Golden Tate 32 23 8 25.0%
75 Mike Evans 32 11 8 25.0%
76 Delanie Walker 28 17 7 25.0%
77 Terrance Williams 24 11 6 25.0%
78 Cole Beasley 24 16 6 25.0%
79 Chris Hogan 16 9 4 25.0%
80 Jack Doyle 12 8 3 25.0%
81 Greg Olsen 37 21 9 24.3%
82 Jermaine Kearse 17 7 4 23.5%
83 Eddie Royal 22 13 5 22.7%
84 Brandon LaFell 23 9 5 21.7%
85 Jarvis Landry 37 23 8 21.6%
86 DeAndre Hopkins 42 22 9 21.4%
87 Julian Edelman 38 23 8 21.1%
88 Julio Jones 34 20 7 20.6%
89 Keenan Allen 20 13 4 20.0%
90 Travis Benjamin 20 8 4 20.0%
91 Andrew Quarless 15 6 3 20.0%
92 Riley Cooper 15 5 3 20.0%
93 Ryan Grant 10 4 2 20.0%
94 Brian Hartline 21 13 4 19.0%
95 Andre Johnson 37 17 7 18.9%
96 Jerricho Cotchery 16 11 3 18.8%
97 T.Y. Hilton 27 12 5 18.5%
98 Vincent Jackson 27 8 5 18.5%
99 Rueben Randle 33 14 6 18.2%
100 Markus Wheaton 22 10 4 18.2%
101 Kenny Stills 11 4 2 18.2%
102 Jeff Cumberland 11 5 2 18.2%
103 Jordy Nelson 28 13 5 17.9%
104 Kelvin Benjamin 17 4 3 17.6%
105 Jordan Cameron 17 6 3 17.6%
106 Brandin Cooks 17 10 3 17.6%
107 Michael Crabtree 23 9 4 17.4%
108 Heath Miller 29 19 5 17.2%
109 Hakeem Nicks 18 7 3 16.7%
110 Preston Parker 12 4 2 16.7%
111 Marvin Jones 12 7 2 16.7%
112 Jamison Crowder 12 5 2 16.7%
113 Jaron Brown 12 8 2 16.7%
114 Demaryius Thomas 59 29 9 15.3%
115 Anquan Boldin 34 18 5 14.7%
116 DeAnthony Thomas 14 12 2 14.3%
117 Jacob Tamme 15 9 2 13.3%
118 Andre Roberts 15 8 2 13.3%
119 Charles Clay 23 9 3 13.0%
120 Cecil Shorts 24 10 3 12.5%
121 Davante Adams 24 12 3 12.5%
122 Steve Smith 28 11 3 10.7%
123 Zach Ertz 21 7 2 9.5%
124 Nate Washington 22 8 2 9.1%
125 Bryan Walters 11 5 1 9.1%
126 Wes Welker 11 7 1 9.1%
127 Marqise Lee 11 3 1 9.1%
128 Mohamed Sanu 24 12 2 8.3%
129 DeSean Jackson 14 6 1 7.1%
130 Andrew Hawkins 15 9 1 6.7%
131 Jared Cook 20 8 1 5.0%
132 Taylor Gabriel 15 8 0 0.0%
133 Percy Harvin 13 8 0 0.0%
134 Dwayne Bowe 10 6 0 0.0%

If you're Matthew Stafford and Jim Bob Cooter, which of these choices gets more red zone targets?

  1. The 5'10", 199 lbs. receiver that's already being targeted as often as Calvin Johnson, but only converting 25% of the time? [Golden Tate]
  2. The 6'2", 198 lbs. receiver with a dismal 16.7% conversion rate in his last two season? [Marvin Jones]
  3. The 6'4", 265 lbs. tight end who ranks 10th among all NFL receivers in red zone conversion rate? [Eric Ebron]

Positives

  • Ebron is young, in great shape, and a physical marvel (6'4", 265 lbs.) with a proven ability to produce in the red zone
  • OC Jim Bob Cooter reignited the Lions offense midway through the 2015 season, and now has an entire offseason to implement his scheme
  • Matthew Stafford remains a high volume passer
  • Calvin Johnson retired, leaving a gaping hole for targets (overall and in the red zone)
  • The running game didn't improve much in the offseason, so a major change to the run/pass balance seems unlikely
  • Ebron showed significant improvement from Year One to Year Two, yet fantasy owners are pricing in a leveling off entering Year Three

Negatives

  • Ebron has struggled with drops at times
  • Marvin Jones was signed to a boatload of money and will be force fed a heavy role
  • Ebron must continue to improve as a blocker in order to be on the field in all downs and distances

Projections

YEAR GRECYDTD
2014 DET 13 25 248 1
2015 DET 14 47 537 5
2016 PROJ-Dodds 15 57 656 5
2016 PROJ-Henry 16 50 560 5
2016 PROJ-Wood 16 60 700 6
2016 PROJ-Tremblay 16 47 564 5

Final Thoughts

Eric Ebron is a divisive player. Our staff rankings range from TE6 to TE21, with the consensus (TE13) arguing that Ebron plateaued last year (when he was TE13). How can we credibly argue that Ebron has plateaued absent predicting a meaningful injury? He's only entering his third season and showed MASSIVE improvement from his first to second seasons. Calvin Johnson retired meaning Matthew Stafford needs to replace 25% of his intended targets. While other players will also vie for those targets, only Ebron is a credible threat to replace Johnson in the red zone. Ebron has the size and strength to dominate in tight quarters, and that's reflected in his stellar red zone TD rate versus his teammates (Tate and Jones, in particular). You can wait until the majority of your league mates have taken a tight end and then swoop in and grab Ebron. I would be quite surprised if that wasn't a winning strategy in most leagues this year.

Other Thoughts

Chad Parsons agrees that Ebron is one to target:
Round 1 drafted tight ends are one of the best fantasy investments around. The position is typically slow to get up to speed, but top-drafted ones like Eric Ebron are rock-solid career arc bets to be a fantasy starter. Even Brandon Pettigrew emerged for 11 and 12 PPG within his first three NFL seasons. Ebron has been lackluster to develop through two years, but the opportunity is aligning. Detroit is near the top of the list for teams with available targets from 2015, as I mentioned in my 'Passing Game Shuffle' post. Calvin Johnson's 150 targets are gone of note. Ebron saw 70 targets a year ago and 100+ are within reach in 2016. 
Joey Keys of Numberfire agrees that Ebron is being overlooked:
If your draft strategy is to wait on the position, then Ebron, who finished 13th in total fantasy points in standard scoring formats last year among tight ends, may represent the opportunity to draft a fairly safe mid-range option, but he could also give the upside of a weekly difference maker.