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Stop worrying about Eric Ebron’s drop stats

You should care more about the kinds of passes he’s dropping rather than how many there are.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Detroit Lions Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s note: The majority of this piece was written before Eric Ebron suffered an injury on Saturday morning. However, given recent news that his injury may not be as severe as initially reported, this detailed breakdown is still very relevant (and very interesting).

The plural of anecdote is not “data”

Recent articles by our own Kent Lee Platte and Mike Payton discussed fan and media perceptions of Eric Ebron. Both articles specifically mentioned the obsession of many people with the “Eric Ebron has a problem with dropped passes” narrative. In Mike’s case, he brought that on himself by responding to some bait about how Ebron won’t be able to catch Pokemon since he can’t catch passes:

Yes it needs to be fixed, but it's nowhere near as bad as it seems, and and it's not at all rare. So let the guy play Pokemon Go without repeating the same old tired joke.

Back in May, Kent wrote a Mythbusters article about Ebron which many people took umbrage to. Naturally, a lot of those irate fans had not bothered to read past the title of the article:

What about drops, isn't that his Achilles heel? Ebron tied for fourth among TEs for drops with five in 2015 (according to Sporting Charts). He ranked seventh among TEs with more than 20 targets for drop percentage at 7.1 percent. That seems to be the only stat most care about, and it isn't great. It isn't, however, the awful problem that it is often made out to be, and he improved from 2014.

The Detroit Lions didn't draft Eric Ebron 10th overall to be a great No. 4 option, however. They didn't draft him to be a top 15 tight end, either, but that's what he is. They want him to be an elite, top tier player at that position, and he isn't there yet.

This of course led to the creation of the Ebronometer, which I plan to bring back from time to time this season. But Mike and Kent are right that the media and fans have taken this dropped pass narrative way too far. Mike is correct when he says that no matter how good a player is, they will drop some passes. Sure, Ebron had a bad three drop game against the Packers, but even great players can have three dropped passes in a game.

Normally, we think of cherry-picked Lions hot takery as mindless Kool-Aid slappy talk if positive or #SOL defeatism if negative. Everyone simply pulls examples that support whatever position they are advocating; it’s confirmation bias run amok. In the case of Eric Ebron and dropped passes, we have this kind of trap from the dungeon of doom and the blogosphere:

Somewhere along the line, “makes the occasional concentration drop” went from draft profile note to defining characteristic because it made for good copy. James Todd on Rotoviz thought the criticism on Ebron’s ability to turn targets into receptions (the “catch rate”) was unfair (emphasis added):

So when you compare Ebron to WRs with similar YPC and YPT, he certainly holds his own. I don’t really hear any complaints about “drops” or “catch rate” with any of these receivers, so since Ebron is getting targeted and making catches at similar thresholds, should we really be worried about his catch rate? I think not. I think his catch rate is perfectly fine for what he does. Justin Blackmon’s 75% catch rate is pretty amazing, but it’s also the outlier. Look at Alshon Jeffery, Calvin Johnson, and Demaryius Thomas; their collegiate catch rates were worse than Ebron’s, and it hasn’t hampered them at all in the pros.

Not all dropped passes are created equal

A nice writeup on Ebron’s rookie year from Marlowe Alter on Detroit Lions All-22 Film Review pointed out a few truly horrible drops by Ebron which qualify as the occasional concentration drop. But Alter also said this:

Was Ebron stellar in year one? No. Was he terrible? No. Rather, as is common in sports debates, his performance was somewhere in the murky middle.

When we combine the eye test with the data, Ebron’s season was close to the norm for rookie tight ends, rather than a complete disaster like some would have you believe.

Sounds a lot like Kent’s Mythbusters article, no? Ebron looked okay but not stellar as a rookie in 2014, made some progress in 2015, and now looks a little better in 2016 camp. But what do you know? We got a couple of haters... a couple of haters over here.

Any time Ebron dropped something, a collective sigh went out and the coverage trotted out the dropped pass narrative as if to say there he goes again. From Kent’s more recent training camp 2016 article on Ebron (emphasis added):

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.

This is a good point. Some passes are tougher to catch than others due to the route, the coverage, the position of the sun, and a host of other factors. Since the assignment of a “drop” is somewhat subjective, I went back and watched every 2015 regular season play in which Eric Ebron was the targeted receiver and the pass was not completed.

Although Ebron was officially charged with only 5 drops in 2015, it was interesting to discover nine plays worth considering:

Opponent Quarter Clock Down and Distance Field Position Brief Description
at San Diego 1Q 7:38 SDO 49 Third-and-6 Quick out left side
at Minnesota 3Q 3:01 DET 27 First-and-10 Quick out, Stafford threw behind him
Denver 4Q 14:21 DET 33 First-and-10 Underthrown wheel, Stafford throwing Ebron open
at Kansas City (London) 1Q 0:45 DET 35 Second-and-6 Stick on left with outside open to run
at Green Bay 1Q 8:32 DET 23 Third-and-11 Arrow route, ball ricocheted off Ebron's facemask
at Green Bay 2Q 0:34 GBY 34 First-and-10 Shallow cross, overthrow by Stafford - Ebron one hand miss
at Green Bay 3Q 6:49 DET 22 Second-and-5 Quick out
Oakland 1Q 8:08 OAK 11 Second-and-Goal Corner
at New Orleans 3Q 14:53 DET 22 First-and-10 Quick dig, middle of field

Okay, let’s see what we’ve got.

Focus and finish: uncontested drops

2015 at SDO, 1Q (7:38). Third-and-6 at the San Diego 49.

This is a routine 8-yard out behind a vertical clearout by 15 WR Golden Tate up the left sideline. Ebron gets good separation from 27 S Jimmy Wilson, but fails to bring in the uncontested ball cleanly:

That’s a very ugly miss to kill a drive at midfield, but the broadcast crew took this opportunity to lay into him with every Eric Ebron narrative you can think of:

Thom Brennaman: Stafford... and that should have been caught. It looked like - that’s Eric Ebron. The number 1 pick and a disappointment as a number 1 pick a year ago.

Charles Davis: And this is what they didn’t need from Eric Ebron early. What did he have trouble with as a rookie? Dropped passes. They needed him to catch the ball cleanly early — get some confidence -- because they need to develop that third receiver to go along with Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate. And by the way: couldn’t be thrown any better than that.

Brennaman: He was the tenth overall pick out of North Carolina last year. Everybody told us for the Lions he’s grown up, he’s matured, he’s learned the offense under Joe Lombardi... and an early drop.

Dropped passes? Check. Draft position disappointment for a tenth overall pick? Check. Maturity problem? Check. This here is all the greatest hits rolled into an extended thirty second slam during the first quarter of the first game of the season.

2015 at MIN, 3Q (3:01). First-and-10 at the Detroit 22.

Stafford threw the ball behind Ebron, so this is a sort of tough catch to make coming out of the break on a short 5-yard out route. I don’t think it’s really fair to slam Ebron over this one because it’s a bad throw by the quarterback.

2015 at KCY (London), 1Q (0:45). Second-and-6 at the Detroit 27.

This is a great example of what is meant by a concentration drop. Ebron runs a simple route, is completely uncovered and set for the ball, and Stafford throws an accurate pass that hits him in the hands.

Sam Rosen: Stafford gets time, and the pass off the hands of Eric Ebron. Looked like a catchable ball.

John Lynch: Very much a catchable ball. That ball was put on Ebron. Looks like he struggled to pick that football up for whatever reason.

This is a play that Stafford runs very well, and it looks like Ebron simply was not expecting the ball. As a No. 2 receiver to Stafford’s left, his instructions are to expect the ball:

Oh well.

2015 at GBY, 1Q (8:32). Third-and-11 at the Detroit 23.

First of all, this is a befuddling play call on third-and-long. Regardless, Ebron would not have gotten much even if he had caught it since 42 FS Morgan Burnett read the play beautifully and blasted Ebron right after the ball deflected away.

2015 at GBY, 2Q (0:34). First-and-10 at the Green Bay 34.

Again, Ebron is running a fairly basic route and has time to look the ball in despite having to dodge an official. The reason he is not really at fault here is that Stafford throws a lousy pass. Ebron manages to get a paw on it, but not enough to bring the ball in. Stafford was not under tremendous pressure, so it is just a bad throw.

2015 at GBY, 3Q (6:49). Second-and-5 at the Detroit 27.

If this looks familiar, you are not imagining things. The play call is the same one as the first Ebron drop we looked at against San Diego. In the same down and distance situation, Jim Bob calls for the 8-yard out by Ebron behind a vertical clearout by Calvin.

Just like the first one against the Chargers, Ebron is unable to track the ball after coming out of his break with little time to locate. He has to fight off 29 CB Casey Hayward, but this is still a relatively routine play we should be able to count on Ebron to convert.

2015 OAK, 1Q (8:08). Second-and-goal at the Oakland 11.

Possibly the most frustrating of the drops is this missed touchdown against the Raiders. What gets me about this drop is that it’s on a route that Ebron ought to be able to run just fine because it has no sudden breaks and fluidly goes to the corner of the end zone. Moreover, this is exactly the kind of red zone play Detroit brought him in to make.

As expected, the broadcast team stomped all over Ebron for the drop:

Andrew Catalon: Stafford looking end zone, it is juggled and incomplete. Ebron had a bead on that one but he could not bring it in.

Steve Beuerlein: Well that’s a ball that Ebron’s gotta make that catch. Ball perfectly thrown by Matthew Stafford. This is a Lions team that — very very good inside the red zone all year, number three ranked team — that ball you can see right on the money, Ebron’s gotta pull it in.

Catalon: And that’s been a big problem for him this year. He drops 9.8 percent of the passes thrown to him. That’s tied for the highest among NFL tight ends with Tyler Eifert of the Bengals. And another drop here for Ebron makes it third-and-goal.

Use that size advantage: making physical contested catches

2015 DEN, 4Q (14:21). First-and-10 at the Detroit 33.

For this play, Ebron is on a set wheel route and looks back with plenty of time to track the ball, which made the bad adjustment to the ball more disappointing. Stafford was flushed a bit to the right by the pass rush and delivered an “underthrown” ball, but probably deliberately so: 43 SS TJ Ward had decent position to take away a deep throw, so Stafford delivered the ball short for Ebron to read and come back for an easier catch:

You can see how long Ebron has after turning his head to watch Stafford and adjust to the throw, but he fails to adjust adequately. Ebron would have seen Stafford coming out of the pocket and throwing on the move, so even more reason to expect a short ball.

Cris Collinsworth: Ebron makes a nice play, and so did Matthew Stafford. (Stafford) underthrew this one... and (Ebron) just didn’t catch the football. He had more problems with drops last year than this, but I thought that was one he should have made.

(Replay from the second GIF plays through the missed catch. Ball passes through Ebron’s hands.)

Collinsworth: Yup.

Ebron’s battling with Ward here to get free to make the catch, but that’s not really an excuse; this is the kind of coverage you want your big body pass catcher to be able to fight through.

2015 at NOS, 3Q (14:53). First-and-10 at the Detroit 22.

This is a designed shallow cross to Ebron to start the second half with a “safe” throw for Stafford and get the ball moving. Unfortunately, Ebron draws good coverage by 24 DB Kyle Wilson and fails to haul it in.

Two things were disappointing about this incompletion. First, Ebron fails to complete the contested catch in tight coverage. He’s a big, strong guy who should be able to muscle through coverage by smaller defensive backs. Ebron has six inches of height and 60 pounds of weight on Wilson. Second, look at Ebron’s immediate reaction after the whistle: he’s calling for a flag on relatively clean coverage. Really? If the interference is blatant, go ahead and complain, but this is just Ebron failing to make a physical play.

2015 at CHI, 2Q (7:10). Third-and-7 at the Chicago 36.

To get an idea of what I mean by blatant interference, here’s a “drop” that I’m not going to blame Ebron for at all because the cheating is so outrageous. Ebron’s being held here by 24 CB Alan Ball. Believe it or not, this is Ball’s only defensive snap of the entire game and he gets away with one to hold the Lions to a field goal attempt (which Prater missed).

How extreme of a grip does the “Ebron drops passes” narrative have over the media? Here’s what the broadcast team had to say as the whistle was blown:

Joe Davis: Ebron’s got it, and then lost it. Well, we said a minute ago he’s been known for drops over his first two years. Flashed the kind of athleticism and ability that he’s got with that one handed catch. This one’s right on him and he drops it.

Brady Quinn: Yeah, a little bit more competitive matchup for Eric Ebron. When we talked about him matched up on (S Harold Jones-Quartey) early on that third down, this time Alan Ball a little bit bigger defensive back at 6-2, 195. And he was able to get one of those long arms in on the football and break up the completion.

I want to go back now and look at the sideline. I believe this is wide receivers coach Robert Prince standing next to the down marker, boxed in yellow. As Stafford rolls toward the sideline, Coach Prince spots 13 WR TJ Jones being held in the middle of the field by 37 CB Bryce Callahan and runs down the field screaming and pointing it out. He ends up approaching where Ball and Ebron are, and spots the grabbing on Ebron and goes bananas on that too. Note there is an official standing right in front of Prince, Ball, and Ebron:

In this case, I’m with Ebron, TJ, and Coach Prince. This is horrible officiating on an important third down that could keep a scoring drive alive, and I’m okay with them complaining about it.

If you insist on being mad, please be mad about the following

There really aren’t a lot of true “dropsies” problems when you look at Ebron’s tape, but other stuff becomes apparent when you focus on his plays that didn’t produce completions. From looking at Ebron’s targets and seeing what kinds of opportunities he “blew,” I come away with two things I want to see this year. The first is for Ebron to start acting like the physical beast he is. A “plus” athleticism guy, he’s bigger, stronger, and faster than most of the guys he’s going up against.

Ebron just doesn’t seem to be a player that has done well mixing it up and fighting for the ball in traffic. I don’t expect him to turn into Anquan Boldin overnight, but it would be nice to see him ripping down contested passes with authority from time to time. A guy that big and powerful should be fighting through pissant defensive backs instead of losing catches to them.

The other thing is for Jim Bob to run Ebron on routes that keep him in motion and with sightlines to the quarterback. The out route drops where Ebron couldn’t locate the ball quickly (e.g. San Diego, Green Bay) might have something to do with the fact he hasn’t been doing this “catch the ball” thing for very long. Routes where he has to make complex choices or quick read adjustments are not going to help him out; he’s just not that polished a route runner (see the Denver drop), and it is unrealistic to expect him to be one.

The combination of these is to use the athletic mismatch like an athletic mismatch. He’s a big guy who’s not supposed to be as fast as he is at that size, so keep him moving and let him run away from the slower guys matching up against him in coverage. Dare the defense to take chances in how they cover him. All the shallow cross and post stuff? Keep working that and set him up using pick plays like we do with the wide receivers. I don’t want to see him doing a whole mess of complicated things if he hasn’t demonstrated he can handle it. If it takes simplifying his route tree like they did late in 2015, do it:

Offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter says that has contributed to Ebron's diminished role in recent weeks, with Brandon Pettigrew being split out more for routes that Ebron used to run.

"I think every factor that can be taken into account with different guys' playing time and targets and all that stuff is viable," Cooter said. "But at the same time, he's really promising in the direction he's heading and we'd like him to keep going that direction."

Some of it’s on the coaches to give him tasks suited to his playing style, and some of it’s on Ebron himself to play 4 keeps when a defender is getting in his face to contest the catch. I think there are ways to put Ebron in situations that will minimize the risk of dropped passes, allowing him to focus on cleaning up just a few technique items while pressing his natural athletic advantages.

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