Eric Ebron is This Year’s Breakout Tight End (Fantasy Football)

Jul 11, 2017

Can Eric Ebron break out in his age-25 season?

Writing about fantasy football comes with many benefits, as it is great to make some side money writing about something I am passionate about, and I have made numerous friendships and built valuable relationships in the fantasy industry. In addition, the hundreds of hours spent watching film and researching players have given me a leg up on my competitors in my fantasy leagues, as most of my buddies do not have the time it takes to find that next sleeper or value pick.

The problem is that more often than not when I find a player that I have identified as a possible steal, I feel compelled as a fantasy writer to share the information with my readers, many of whom are competing managers in my league. For this reason, I often find myself frustrated because the intel that I share in my work tends to be used against me on draft day by my friends.

Despite my frustrations, I will continue to open the proverbial vault over the next few weeks by sharing mid- and late-round value picks that could be league-winning selections for fantasy players in 2017.

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The first player on my list is tight end Eric Ebron, a breakout candidate for many analysts and writers in 2016 that failed to live up to expectations in his third season with 61 catches for 711 yards and one touchdown over 13 games. Although Ebron posted career highs in receptions, yards per reception, and targets, he disappointed fantasy owners with just one touchdown, while failing to complete a full 16 game schedule for the third consecutive season.

Often referred to as brick-hands Ebron by many Lions fans, the former first-round selection of the 2014 NFL Draft has yet to live up to his early draft stock with only seven career TDs and single-digit red zone targets in each of his three seasons.

Many of you are scratching your heads right now wondering why I would recommend drafting Ebron if he has yet to live up to the hype. What has changed for the former North Carolina Tar Heel that would allow him to finally break through and become a top-five tight end?

The first variable that has changed for the Lions is an improved offensive line that should afford Matthew Stafford more time to look downfield to his passing weapons, including Ebron. With the additions of T.J. Lang and Ricky Wagner on the right side of the line, the Lions should be able to improve on their 19th overall grade in 2016 by ProFootballFocus (assuming Greg Robinson can do an adequate job filling in for injured starting left tackle Taylor Decker).

Age and player maturity is a second reason why I am buying shares of Ebron this season, as most tight ends take a few seasons to learn the position before posting their first monster year. With the exception of freaks and future hall of famers like Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Gates, many top-tier tight ends did not post their breakout season until their age-25 campaign.

Jimmy Graham, Jordan Reed, Julius Thomas, and Vernon Davis all broke out into fantasy relevance at age 25, with Davis leading the pack with 13 touchdowns as part of the 2009 49ers.

For a tight end or wide receiver to take the next step in their career and become a fantasy star, opportunity in the passing game, especially in the red zone, is a key contributor, as talent and maturity are not enough if the volume is not present.

In the case of Ebron, the addition of Anquan Boldin torpedoed a breakout 2016 season with the veteran receiver garnering the third most red zone targets in the NFL (24). Despite being older, slower, and smaller than Ebron, Boldin quickly became a red zone favorite of Stafford.

With Boldin out of the picture in 2017, Ebron should see a significant increase in red zone targets, doubling or possibly tripling his total of six from the previous season. The main threat to this narrative is rookie wide receiver Kenny Golladay, who at 6’4″, 218 pounds, could also become a red zone option for Stafford. I like Golladay, and I have read positive comments from the Lions coaching staff this summer, but I anticipate Stafford will opt for the veteran presence of Ebron over a rookie.

Like quarterback, tight end has evolved into a position in fantasy which many owners wait until the late rounds to fill with the hope of striking gold with a late tight end that breaks out and ends the season as a top-five player at the position. With the improvements in his offensive line, the loss of Anquan Boldin and the likelihood of a sizable increase in red zone targets, and the fact that many tight ends bust out at age 25, Eric Ebron could be the late-round steal owners in 2017.

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Andrew Swanson is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Andrew, check out his archive or follow him @FantasyProsAndy.

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