Notebook: Lions add more firepower to passing game

May 8, 2014
Eric Ebron, Jeff Luc
North Carolina's Eric Ebron had a breakout junior season with 62 catches for 973 yards, breaking the ACC record for yards by tight end held by Vernon Davis at Maryland. / AP

One of the NFL’s top passing offenses got a little better Thursday night.

The Detroit Lions put their defense on the back burner for the moment and added another weapon for quarterback Matthew Stafford by taking North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron at No. 10.

Tight end wasn’t a glaring need for the Lions, who return veteran Brandon Pettigrew and touchdown-machine Joseph Fauria, but the 6-foot-4, 250-pound Ebron was widely considered the top tight end prospect in the draft.

Ebron, who’ll be a 21-year-old rookie, set an ACC single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end (973) last season, but had a few blemishes emerge after recurring issues and an underwhelming pro day.

Detroit’s 23rd-ranked passing defense still needs to be addressed, but the Lions decided Ebron’s upside was too good to pass on.

General manager Martin Mayhew and new coach Jim Caldwell both believe the combination of Ebron and Pettigrew should add another dimension to the league’s third-ranked passing attack and keep opposing defenses honest in the middle of the field.

“It creates difficulties for (a defense), especially with someone like Eric, who is a 250-pound guy who can run extremely well,” Caldwell said of Ebron. “What it forces a defense to do is make a determination of how you want to play him. Brandon is one side, he is on the other — how are you going to treat him?

“Are you going to treat him like a tight end and leave a linebacker in the game, which is a mismatch in terms of the passing game, or are you going to put a smaller defender in, which creates some problems in terms of him being able to leverage that particular play?”

The Packers were torched in a 40-10 Thanksgiving loss to the Lions, who ran up 561 total yards. The addition of Ebron could mean another challenge for the Packers and other NFC North foes battling questionable linebacker and safety play.

Detroit parted ways with Nate Burleson earlier this offseason, but seems to have improved its offense with the signing of Seattle’s Golden Tate to work across from All-Pro receiver Calvin Johnson and extending running back Joique Bell for three more seasons.

For all of those reasons, the Lions are feeling pretty good about how they sit, offensively.

“From a skill-position player, I think we have two really good receivers in Calvin and Golden,” said Lions offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, Vince Lombardi’s grandson. “I think a tight end who runs like Eric does — we have two pretty good tight ends as it is — but he has got a different skill set and that adds a whole new element of your offense with a tight end who can run like that.”

Vikings trade, take Barr

Seeking to fix a defense that ranked 31st in yardage allowed last season, the Minnesota Vikings drafted outside linebacker Anthony Barr in the first round.

They were patient, trading back one spot with Cleveland, before taking Barr, who is a raw 6-foot, 478-inch, 255-pounder out of UCLA.

He spent his first two college seasons as a running back, then had 23½ sacks and 41½ tackles for a loss in his two seasons at linebacker.

“The things he can do for his size are pretty unique,” Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said. “We see him in the Sam linebacker role, but as a three-down player.

“It’s pretty rare to see what he does.”

Scouts say Barr is best as a 3-4 outside linebacker, his scheme at UCLA, but he could play end or linebacker in a 4-3 scheme, which is Minnesota’s base defense.

“We have ends that play around 260-265 and linebackers at 240-245, so there’s no issue,” Spielman said. “He’s plenty big enough.”

Barr reportedly improved his NFL combine 40-yard dash time from 4.60 seconds to 4.45 seconds at his pro day.

“When you can get these type of athletes, it gives coaches the flexibility to do plenty of things,” Spielman said. “You can’t coach what he has. Same conversations last year with (first-round wide receiver) Cordarrelle (Patterson).”

The Vikings decided not to use their first pick on a quarterback, a position of need. “I think there’s going to be enough depth in this draft to get a quarterback later,” Spielman said.

Indeed there was as Minnesota traded into the end of the first round to pick Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater at No. 32.

The Vikings acquired the pick from Seattle, giving up their 2014 second-round pick (No. 40 overall) and fourth-round pick (No. 108 overall).

Extra points

■ The Chicago Bears got younger at cornerback after spending their first-round draft pick on Kyle Fuller.

Of the Bears’ primary starters, Charles Tillman is 33 and Tim Jennings is 30.

“I feel like they know I can play the corner, nickel, safety ... wherever they need me,” said Fuller, a 5-11¾, 190-pounder from Virginia Tech.

Fuller was the Hokies’ team captain last season and started 41 games in four years. In his career, he had six interceptions and 28 passes defended. At the combine, he ran the 40 in 4.43 seconds

Last season, he missed four games after hernia surgery.

Fuller comes from an NFL family: His brother Vince is a former NFL safety and another brother Corey is a wide receiver with the Detroit Lions.

■ Former Packers assistant coach Red Cochran will be one of eight to be inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame on Saturday.

Cochran, who passed away in 2004, was a member of Vince Lombardi’s staff during Green Bay’s five NFL titles and Super Bowl I championship. He was inducted into the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame in 1997.

After serving in World War II in the Army Air Corps for three years, he played, coached or scouted for teams in 10 NFL championship games and which won seven championships.

■ The table is set for Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews to face his cousin, Jake, on “Monday Night Football” on Dec. 8 after the Atlanta Falcons drafted the Texas A&M senior offensive tackle with the sixth pick.

Matthews, who is the son of Hall of Fame center Bruce Matthews, is the seventh member of his family to play in the NFL. He started 26 straight games at right tackle before switching over to the left side during his senior year and starting all 13 games in 2013.

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