By: Will Burchfield
With the Lions in limbo in regard to the long-term future of Eric Ebron, could they seek out his replacement in the first round of next week's NFL Draft?
The door appears open.
Ebron, entering his fourth NFL season, is signed through 2017 with a team option for 2018. The Lions must decide by May 2 whether or not to exercise that option. So far, general manager Bob Quinn has sounded anything but committal.
"It's just something we've talked very little about the past couple months," Quinn said on Thursday. "Deadline is coming up in two weeks, so we'll spend the next two weeks discussing it. We'll kind of see how it goes."
Should Detroit pick up Ebron's option in 2018, he would be owed the average of the ten highest-paid players at his position. That would likely cost the Lions at least $8 million, a price they may be unwilling to pay given Ebron's good-not-great production. The 24-year-old also presents some injury concerns, having yet to play a full season in the NFL.
In sizing up the draft class on Thursday, Quinn pointed to tight end as one of five positions of strength. The Lions have done their homework on a number of players at that position, including Alabama's O.J. Howard and Miami's David Njoku, both of whom are all but guaranteed to be selected in the first round. It would be a shock to see Howard fall to the Lions at No. 21, but there's a very good chance Njoku will still be on the board.
Quinn said on Thursday the team's needs are equal on both sides of the ball and he only ruled out selecting one position in the early rounds of the draft: offensive line. He reiterated his stance on looking for the best player available who also satisfies a team need, and it's fair to say the Lions have a need at tight end, if not a particularly pressing one.
Quinn also said this: "After being here for a year, going through the season, I think it's prudent to take the best player available because if you pass over a great player, no matter what the position, I think you're going to look back and probably regret that."
If Njoku is the best player remaining when the Lions' pick rolls around, Quinn might well scoop him up, knowing the team isn't committed to Ebron past 2018. Asked if the results of the draft could affect the team's decision in regard to picking up the tight end's option, Quinn said, "It's a possibility. We'll use our time."
For what it's worth, two national writers - one from NFL.com, one from CBS Sports - believe the Lions will take Njoku in the first round. It may not be a pick that would sit well with the fans given Ebron's inconsistency over three seasons in Detroit, but it certainly shouldn't be ruled out.
The 6'4, 240-pound Njoku caught 43 passes for 698 yards and eight touchdowns in his final season at Miami. At the scouting combine, he posted a 4.64 40 and a 37.5-inch vertical. He has drawn pro comparisons to Carolina's Greg Olsen.
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