Eric Ebron Is Going to Have the Best Fantasy Football Season of His Career

The Detroit Lions young tight end is coming of age quicker than anybody could have imagined.

Since 2001, only 13 tight ends played their rookie season at the tender age of 21. Eric Ebron was only one of two who was a top-10 pick in the NFL Draft.

That's a grand total of two players in almost two decades.

Age didn't concern the Detroit Lions when they tabbed Ebron with the 10th pick in the 2014 draft -- and why would it, when, after a sophomore season in which he set school records at North Carolina, Ebron took another step forward in his junior year by leading the Tar Heels with 62 receptions and 973 receiving yards.

Nor were the Lions fazed that at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine when, after running 4.60 40-yard dash to earn a height adjusted speed score in the 85th percentile according to PlayerProfiler, Ebron injured his hamstring on the second attempt, delaying the three cone drill and 20-yard shuttle until an ugly pro day performance.

A Thorn in the Lion's Paw

Maybe they should have been a tiny bit concerned about the hammy, however, because getting nicked up has been a reoccurring theme for Ebron. As a rookie, he missed three games with another hamstring injury. In 2015, a knee sprain cost him two games. Last year, a sprained ankle kept Ebron out for four contests.

Yet despite the various ailments, his overall level of play has not been hampered -- in fact, he's managed to improve significantly. Now entering his fourth professional season, Ebron has seen his targets, receptions, yards, and catch rate all rise year over year.

Year Age Games Targets Rec Yards Y/R TD Catch%
2014 21 13 47 25 248 9.9 1 53.20%
2015 22 14 70 47 537 11.4 5 67.10%
2016 23 13 85 61 711 11.7 1 71.80%

What's most concerning is that he had one touchdown reception all of last year, after grabbing five in 2015. (At least Ebron also scored this rushing touchdown). Two total touchdowns in 13 games is a disappointment, and this lack of touchdown production also dogged Ebron at UNC, where he had only eight touchdowns in 34 games.

Just Can’t Wait to Be King

After a fairly quiet rookie season, Ebron scored a career-high five touchdowns in 2015. If Ebron had matched those five touchdowns last season, he would have ended 2016 as a top-10 fantasy tight end. On a per game basis, Ebron threatens the top-five at the position.

In fact, parts of Ebron’s 2016 stat line look eerily similar to what this year’s consensus number two tight end, Travis Kelce, did in 2015 before he went off last year.

Ebron’s fantasy output was nearly identical in 2015 and 2016, because even though Ebron added 14 catches and 174 receiving yards, he lost those 3 touchdowns.

However, Ebron improved by nearly 18 points in numberFire’s Net Expected Points (NEP), placing him as last year’s number eight tight end. That difference is by no means insignificant. A repeat of 2015’s Net Expected Points would have cost Ebron a dozen spots on the 2016 tight end leaderboard.

Net Expected Points reflects the number of points that a player contributes -- either positively or negatively -- to his team versus what is expected against the league average based on historical results in similar game situations (down, distance, line of scrimmage) from the last 12 years. You can read more about Net Expected Points here in our glossary.

Hakuna Matata

The current numberFire projections have Ebron penciled in for career highs in receptions and yards, although just slightly. If, like me, you are aggressively taking the over on those projections, it's because of Anquan Boldin's 95 vacated targets, and what comes along with them: a vast amount of potential opportunities in the red zone.

As you can see, Ebron was an afterthought when the Lions got into scoring position. To really underscore that point, consider running back Theo Riddick, despite missing six games, nearly doubled Ebron in red zone targets.

As mentioned, Boldin's 95 targets from last year -- of which, 23 came in the red zone - are up for grabs. Despite being third in total targets on the team, Boldin was the leader in both touchdowns and red zone targets. League-wide, he saw the third-most red zone targets of any player.

This is a sizable chunk that Ebron can partially absorb as he continues his ascent. His quarterback, Matthew Stafford, throws nearly 600 passes every year. The only receiver of consequence added during the offseason was the third round rookie wide receiver Kenny Golladay; a favorite of Editor-In-Chief JJ Zachariason.

The MFL10 Live App on currently has Ebron calculated as the TE12. His ADP is 111.5, but is climbing. The RotoViz Dynasty ADP app puts Ebron is nearly the same exact spot; TE12 with an ADP of 113.1 in start-up drafts.

Undervalued by both the redraft and dynasty communities, Ebron is now poised to crack the top-10 fantasy tight ends for the first time. And if he’s able to fill some of the red zone void left by Boldin, a realistic avenue to a top-five season starts to open for up the rapidly maturing Lion.