NFC 16 in need of sophomore season reboots: Lions TE Eric Ebron (and his troublesome drops) leads group

In the spring of 2014, Eric Ebron triggered almost every NFL draft cliché about a hard-to-define player. He was billed as the contemporary tight end: big but fast, smooth but athletic, a tantalizing matchup problem tailor-made for this decade. And while he was a quizzical No. 10 overall pick by the Detroit Lions, all we could do was shrug and talk about possibilities.

One year later, arguably no other second-year player outside of Johnny Manziel needs a sophomore reboot more sorely than Ebron.

Eric Ebron had 25 receptions last season, one for a touchdown. (Getty Images)
Eric Ebron had 25 receptions last season, one for a touchdown. (Getty Images)

Not just because Ebron's first season was frustratingly subpar (which is a mild assessment). But also because Ebron's selection can now be framed within the confines of his draft class. And unfortunately for Detroit, Ebron was plucked in front of a group of players that has thrived. The seven picks after Ebron? They include the NFL's offensive and defensive rookies of the year (wideout Odell Beckham Jr. and defensive tackle Aaron Donald), two All-Pros (Zack Martin and C.J. Mosley) and three players who look like promising starters (offensive tackle Taylor Lewan, cornerback Kyle Fuller and linebacker Ryan Shazier).

Any one of those selections would have immensely helped the Lions in 2014. Instead, Detroit's staff was left trying to solve the Ebron equation, weaning along a guy who lacked NFL conditioning, was nagged by a hamstring issue and needed more fundamental coaching than expected. None of which included Ebron's hands, which were dropping passes left and right, quite alarming for someone billed as a potential game-changing receiving element like Jimmy Graham.

[Related: Johnny Football leads group of 16 AFC sophomores in need of reboots]

That's a trend that hasn't subsided, as Ebron has continued to drop passes in offseason workouts. All of which will surely raise the volume on a debate over whether he's headed toward full-fledged "bust" status.

"Just like a lot of young guys, some days they have great days and some [have] days that are not so good," Lions coach Jim Caldwell said recently of Ebron. "[There are] just ups and downs until we get that kind of consistency. That's what [young guys] are working for all across the board. We have a lot of guys that are in [Ebron's] situation, first- and second-year guys that are still developing. Typically, you'll start to see some progress. You have to see some progress."

Caldwell said Ebron has been in better shape this offseason, specifically running better than he was in 2014. He has a leaner body than in his rookie season, which is typically one of the hallmarks of first-year players taking their next step forward into Year 2. But Ebron's hands are still a concern. Caldwell said Ebron has been working on catching, but added that "consistency is the thing that's key."

Mike Williams (Getty Images)
Mike Williams (Getty Images)

With the Lions still searching for the vital third receiving option to Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate, Ebron is sure to get his opportunities again this year. But Detroit also has another former first-round tight end, Brandon Pettigrew, through 2017. Pettigrew out-snapped Ebron 632-489 last season, and if Ebron doesn't take a big step forward this preseason, it will likely be another season of playing second-fiddle.

Ebron needs a big rebound in 2015, lest he begin looking similar to the last big, athletic, out-of shape, head-scratching draft pick that the Lions took 10th overall.

Mike Williams, anyone?

Here are the rest of the NFC players looking for a sophomore reboot this season:

NFC NORTH

Green Bay Packers – Khyri Thornton, DT

The Packers' third-round pick from 2014 will already be fighting for a roster spot this preseason. He may have been cut prior to last year if a hamstring injury hadn't allowed the Packers to squirrel him away on injured reserve for the season. Thornton looked like he lacked the size to play on the NFL level prior to that, and was bottom-dwelling on Green Bay's defensive tackle hierarchy. Word is he spent the offseason beefing up in the weight room and knows he is fighting for a job. Time will tell if he has done enough to turn it around in 2015. But not too much time – maybe the preseason and nothing else.

Chicago Bears – Ego Ferguson, DT

Ego Ferguson (Getty Images)
Ego Ferguson (Getty Images)

Ferguson is a candidate for a sophomore reboot – but not because he played poorly in 2014. Ferguson was a solid rookie for the Bears, albeit with some room to upgrade his physique. Instead, this particular reboot comes with the Bears moving to a 3-4 defense. That is going to require some position flexibility from last season's second-round pick. And with free-agent signee Ray McDonald getting jettisoned, Ferguson will feel even more pressure to fill snaps on the defensive line. He apparently got the message this offseason, trimming 10 pounds off his frame to get closer to a more lean 300-305 pounds. That will allow Ferguson to play with a little more speed and athleticism, and it should give him an opportunity to play both nose tackle and pass rushing defensive end (known as a "five technique" end in the 3-4 defense).

Minnesota Vikings – Scott Crichton, DE

The Vikings' first two picks (linebacker Anthony Barr and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater) look like pillars. Crichton? If he wants to be more than a bit player or special teams grinder, he is going to have to show something in 2015. Crichton logged eight games as a rookie but only 16 defensive snaps. That's not the end of the world for a third-round pick, but not good, either. Most third-round guys who stick in the NFL show a big stride between seasons one and two. Crichton is staring at Everson Griffen and Brian Robison at the top of the defensive end depth chart, but the Vikings would like to see him take at least 400 snaps in a rotational role this year. Thus far he's been one of the highlights of offseason workouts, getting some pom-pom waving from general manager Rick Spielman.

NFC SOUTH

Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE

A lot was made of Seferian-Jenkins having first-round talent when he was drafted 38th overall. But he never stepped into the big offensive role that was available for the taking, dealing with ankle problems and a back injury that ended his season on injured reserve. None of that has diminished hopes of a major reboot in 2015, as Seferian-Jenkins has raved about how great he feels this offseason. That renewed health will likely get put to the test immediately by new Buccaneers offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who has shown an acumen for implementing tight ends into his scheme. And lest anyone forget, rookie quarterback Jameis Winston is in the fold. History shows us that a tight end is often a rookie quarterback's best friend. That's great news for Seferian-Jenkins in 2015.

Carolina Panthers – Kony Ealy, DE

Ealy registered only one sack through his first 12 games. He rounded a corner in his final three games, reeling off one sack in each of his last three regular-season outings (including one against future Hall of Fame tackle Joe Thomas). So maybe this reboot started in December of 2014. But Ealy still has plenty to work on. In 368 defensive snaps as a rookie, he was one of the worst 4-3 defensive ends against the run in the NFL. That will have to improve if he wants to take the majority of the opportunities left behind by the departure of Greg Hardy. A more likely scenario is a platoon opposite Charles Johnson, with Ealy getting the majority of snaps on passing downs, and a modest expanding role against the run.

New Orleans Saints – Stanley Jean-Baptiste, CB

Stanley Jean-Baptiste (Getty Images)
Stanley Jean-Baptiste (Getty Images)

Just contributing something – anything – will be a step forward for Jean-Baptiste, whose head was swimming the majority of last season as he absorbed the Saints' defensive playbook. He contributed almost nothing (eight defensive snaps all season), which is a fairly sizable disappointment for a second-round cornerback. While some have suggested the Saints weren't counting on him as a rookie, that would be a remarkable theory for the NFL's 25th ranked pass defense. Indeed, Jean-Baptiste didn't play because he couldn't be trusted even on technique, let alone with the team's coverage concepts. Now he's had an entire season and offseason to get the playbook down, while also getting his 1-on-1 fundamentals smoothed out. The Saints are expected to have him run with the second string corners until he can show he deserves more responsibility.

Atlanta Falcons – Ra'Shede Hageman, DT

Anyone who watched HBO's 2014 edition of "Hard Knocks" is familiar with Hageman, who often spent his camera time getting an earful from defensive line coach Bryan Cox. Part of that tough love underlined what Hageman was last season: a project who needed both weight and technique adjustments. That's what the Falcons figured they were getting when they drafted him in the second round – a guy with a lot of raw talent who was likely going to need a year to start paying dividends. Nearly one year later, he has lost some weight and picked up some quickness off the ball, and new coach Dan Quinn is talking up Hageman's versatility. Hageman got 224 defensive snaps last season. That number should easily double this year (and may climb considerably more). If it doesn't, this season two reboot went wrong somewhere.

NFC EAST

New York Giants – Jay Bromley, DT

Bromley secured only 113 defensive snaps last season and five tackles as he mostly sat behind veterans. In hopes of fine-tuning his body and technique, he spent time in Florida this offseason training with Jason Pierre-Paul. The hope, for the Giants, is that the 2014 third-round pick can produce a similar second year bounce that was accomplished by fellow defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins. Hankins went from 16 tackles and zero sacks as a rookie to 51 and seven his second season. The return of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will certainly provide some opportunities, as the preferred scheme fits both platooning and moving defensive tackles around for maximum impact. With veteran Mike Patterson off the roster, the opportunity will be there for Bromley to significantly up his snaps.

Washington Redskins – Spencer Long, G

There was hope that Long would push himself into the starting lineup last season, but lingering knee issues slowed the development of this third-round pick. That translated into only 18 offensive snaps and some disappointment heading to the offseason. But Long has quickly turned that around in the last few months, looking more healthy and prepared heading toward training camp, including a better grasp of the offensive scheme. The Redskins have responded to that, cutting Chris Chester and opening up a starting guard spot for Long. Unless something changes drastically in the next few weeks, Long is guaranteed to see a spike in snaps starting in veteran minicamp and training camp. All Long has to do now is show he deserves it.

Dallas Cowboys – Demarcus Lawrence, DE

Demarcus Lawrence got the best of Aaron Rodgers on this play in the playoffs. (Getty Images)
Demarcus Lawrence got the best of Aaron Rodgers on this play in the playoffs. (Getty Images)

Lawrence was supposed to be the answer at right defensive end for Dallas, but it just never looked like the proper fit for the second-round pick. Lawrence played 277 defensive snaps but managed only nine tackles and zero sacks. That qualifies for a disappointing rookie season for the 34th overall pick, who was supposed to replace the departed DeMarcus Ware. Now Greg Hardy and rookie Randy Gregory are in the fold, so right defensive end appears to be out for Lawrence. As a side note, it's got to sting Lawrence that Gregory was given the iconic No. 94 jersey right off the bat. But perhaps Lawrence will be a better fit at left defensive end. He is looking stronger, and the Cowboys are going to give him a shot to start there. But he's going to need to show some results sooner rather than later.

Philadelphia Eagles – Marcus Smith, LB

Amazingly, Smith – last season's first-round pick – could be a candidate to get cut if he doesn't start showing something fast. He didn't have a firm grasp on the defensive scheme last season, and was basically invisible. Physically, he wasn't on the NFL level, either. That's how he ended up logging only 74 defensive snaps and didn't register a single tackle. And if that wasn't bad enough, he has already run into a groin tweak this offseason, after bulking up to 265 pounds. Smith is going to have to show he can maintain both bulk and athleticism, and get himself onto the field consistently. Mental reps won't keep him on the roster. Arguably no first-round pick from 2014 has more to prove before the season.

NFC WEST

St. Louis Rams – Lamarcus Joyner, CB

Joyner wasn't necessarily bad as a rookie, but compared to the rest of the Rams' draft class, the 2014 second-round pick (41st overall) was far off the pace. From defensive tackle Aaron Donald (defensive rookie of the year) to offensive tackle Greg Robinson and running back Tre Mason (both solid starters and key pieces going forward), there were plenty of rookie success stories in St. Louis. But nothing stung Joyner as much as when sixth-round cornerback E.J. Gaines stepped into Joyner's nickel back spot and played well. To be fair, a groin injury slowed Joyner down and led to only 290 defensive snaps. But he showed some flashes that gave head coach Jeff Fisher reason to believe he'll eventually be a cornerstone in the secondary. Considered a potentially elite corner coming out of Florida State, he'll get plenty of opportunities in training camp to flourish in his 2015 reboot.

Arizona Cardinals – Troy Niklas, TE

Niklas was supposed to have the raw potential and size to come in and be an immediate factor on offense, but never got much of a chance. Instead, Niklas struggled with myriad injuries, including a hernia, broken hand and sprained ankles. By the time the season ended, the second-round pick played only 90 offensive snaps and caught just three passes for 38 yards. But John Carlson has retired, so the pressure will be on Niklas to stay on the field and shoulder a chunk of the passing offense. Head coach Bruce Arians certainly knows how to use his tight ends. If Niklas can't take hold in training camp, the Cardinals could consider some veteran options who are still floating around on the free-agent market.

Seattle Seahawks – Paul Richardson, WR

Paul Richardson (Getty Images)
Paul Richardson (Getty Images)

Richardson had the opportunity (530 offensive snaps) to make a bigger impact than he did in 2014. The second-round pick wasn't terrible – he certainly didn't define himself as a player who made a lot of yardage after the catch, averaging 9.3 yards on 29 receptions. That's a tough reality considering that last season's draft was basically a bumper crop of good wideouts. What made Richardson's rookie year truly hurt was the torn ACL he suffered in the playoffs, which could end up significantly stunting his growth in 2015, too. As it stands, Seattle is playing it conservatively and that will likely cost Richardson an entire offseason and training camp of development. He may still end up on the PUP list to start the season. It's a troubling start to a much-needed reboot season.

San Francisco 49ers – Jimmie Ward, CB

It was a jagged rookie season for Ward, who had a chance to distinguish himself as the 49ers' nickel back but never quite got there. The 49ers' first-round pick was beaten up in Week 2 by Chicago Bears wideout Brandon Marshall, who scored three touchdowns on him, then suffered a quad injury a few weeks later. He aggravated a foot fracture that was discovered (and surgically repaired) prior to 2014 NFL draft. That ended the season on injured reserve, as he finished with 270 defensive snaps, 20 tackles and no interceptions. The 49ers have said Ward is "on schedule" to return fully from the second foot fracture, likely sometime in training camp. Health will be paramount to get him back on track in 2015.