If there is one trope that we get used to hearing every season, it’s "embattled player who under-performed last year is totally going to do better this year, like for reals guys!" It’s not a new phenomenon, but it’s one you start to grow cautious of as a fan year after year. Sometimes the players do legitimately improve, but often times it’s just noise during one of the slowest periods of football news. It’s impossible to just ignore news from training camp, though. So how do you sift through what is a meaningful update on a player and what is simple fluff? Time is one piece, the other is reading between the lines.
The Drop Watch
In 2014, newly drafted tight end Eric Ebron came into camp with almost universal revulsion from the Detroit Lions fan base. Despite a strong college resume and athletic profile, fans simply didn’t want to draft a tight end in the top 10. A history of dropped passes in college, something shared with other receivers on the short list that year, was made worse by certain beat writers’ focus on drops and solely drops. Whenever Ebron made a play, it wasn’t about how good of a catch it was, it was a joke about how he didn’t drop it. One beat writer even had a "Drop Watch" that year, keeping track of any pass he dropped (or may have touched, even if it was uncatchable). I don’t mean to knock the Detroit Lions beat, we’re very fortunate in Detroit to have a relatively good group, but it made an already tough transition even more difficult in fans’ eyes.
The Camp Shine
2015 rolled around and the tone shifted somewhat. It started out with some obvious negativity. The Drop Watch was talked about in OTAs, but it was gone by the time regular camp started. It was pretty obvious why, too. Eric Ebron wasn’t a rookie anymore, he wasn’t new to the game or learning a pro game that was vastly different than college. He was ready, and he was determined to show that readiness. He still dropped a few passes in camp, but there was a lot more emphasis on the good plays than the bad ones. It was clear he was ready to step up, and step up he did: more than doubling his production from the previous season. Despite an atrocious scheme run by Joe Lombardi and a struggling offensive line, Eric Ebron gained nearly 300 more yards than in his rookie year and ranked in the top 15 in yardage for tight ends.
Same Shine or Different Luster?
I understand the hesitation for fans when they hear that Eric Ebron looks good in camp this season. I mean, he looked good in camp last season, and while he ended up doing well statistically, most expected him to be amazing, not just do well. Eric Ebron sucks! As someone who watched him in each year of training camp, there are some subtle differences that ought to give you some optimism coming into 2016. Sure, the offensive line is still pretty bad, but Ebron himself is playing better than he had in last year’s camp.
One thing that was mostly missing from camp this year are the qualifiers. The "buts." You hear a lot less about how Ebron ran a smooth route, created separation, "but" dropped the pass. You don’t hear about how he made an exciting, one handed grab "but" failed to corral the ball as he came to the ground. Those qualifiers are gone and instead we’re hearing legitimate praise of a player coming into his own. In an offense that will certainly share touches due to guys like Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, Theo Riddick, and Anquan Boldin, Ebron shouldn’t be drowned out when discussing offensive weapons. Not only should he not, I don’t think anyone will be able to once he sees the field. Plenty of players have looked good in camp then flopped when the games began. Cockroach players, we call them, scattering under the bright lights. Ebron already showed that when he looked improved, he was improved. He’s already shown that when he’s more confident, he plays better. I’ve never seen him more confident than he is right now. The story of the offseason was Marvin Jones coming to Detroit, Golden Tate embracing an increased role, and Anquan Boldin signing late in camp. The story of the 2016 season may be about Eric Ebron validating his draft status.