- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
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ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- After the Detroit Lions hired Joe Lombardi earlier this season and the new offensive coordinator made it obvious he was going to pattern the team after what he learned in New Orleans, the thought of Jimmy Graham has been prevalent.
When the Lions spurned defense Thursday night to take tight end Eric Ebron in the first round of the NFL draft -- despite already having two capable tight ends on the roster, a fairly deep draft class at the position and major needs on defense -- it focused the team's dependence on the position even more.
Then Lombardi mentioned something more interesting. When asked about the role tight end Joseph Fauria could still provide, he said he could envision the Lions lining up three tight ends on the field at one time. In the past, that type of package typically has meant a jumbo-type set designed for short-yardage or goal-line offense.
Not now. Not in Detroit.
The Lions could use three tight ends all across the field. Between Lombardi's talk about the formation and the six tight ends currently on the roster, it's clear there will be more emphasis on the position overall.
"Listen, Joseph is still going to have a strong role in the red zone," Lombardi said. "There is nothing to say that we aren't going to have three tight ends on the field at some point."
In Lombardi's five years with New Orleans, where he was primarily the quarterbacks coach, the Saints played 141 snaps with three tight ends on the field at once, according to ESPN Stats & Information. They ran the ball 69 times out of that set and also completed 44 of 71 passes in those five seasons.
The team used it the most in 2013, for 49 snaps, scoring seven touchdowns when three tight ends were on the field. The Saints completed 16 of 32 passes with a three-tight-end look last season, good for 185 yards and four touchdowns. Interestingly, 100 of those yards were after the catch, likely signifying it wasn't only used in the red zone.
Ten of those 16 catches in the formation went to tight ends.
At the very least, drafting Ebron probably means the definitive end of the favored formation under then-offensive coordinator Scott Linehan last season, which was one running back, three wide receivers and Brandon Pettigrew somewhere on the field.
Now, it could be Calvin Johnson, Ebron, Pettigrew and Golden Tate lining up a bit of everywhere. So don't think Ebron will be primarily in the slot. At North Carolina last season, Ebron caught the majority of his passes lined up as a wide receiver.
"I never want to say primarily anything," Lombardi said. "He is going to line up all over the place and you are going to have to find him. That's kind of one of our goals in not wanting to be predictable for defenses.
"We don't want them to say, 'Calvin is always here, we know how to deal with it.' You just want to keep mixing it up so the defense can never really hone in on what your plan is."
Realistically, Detroit is not going to sit Ebron or Pettigrew very often -- not after drafting Ebron in the first round and guaranteeing Pettigrew $8 million of his new four-year deal. So the multiplicity of the Lions' offense in 2014 could give Detroit a crazy amount of options. It can use anything from two-back sets with Joique Bell and Reggie Bush, to three- and four-receiver sets, to sets with one, two or three tight ends at once.
This is probably why the Lions felt comfortable drafting offense so early at the expense of addressing the defense.
Detroit will likely cater its offensive plan to what Ebron can do once he arrives this week and starts working in rookie minicamp this weekend. Once the Lions see how well he runs, and how far away his blocking or in-line capabilities might be, then they can further assess his value.
If the team really does view him as what he was at North Carolina, which was a bulkier, taller wide receiver with a tight end designation, Detroit could place him anywhere on the field, much like they do with Johnson. It is also highly likely Ebron's role at the start of the season will be different from his role at the end.
He is still learning the position. He only really started playing football his junior year of high school, after he was offered a scholarship by North Carolina following a one-day camp he attended. So his room for growth is large, and as he improves, the opportunities for Detroit's offense are likely to multiply.
Don't expect Ebron to become Graham, though. He was adamant about that after he was drafted. While he might play a similar role in the Detroit offense as Graham does in New Orleans, it isn't fair to compare Ebron to Graham, a converted basketball player.
If you're looking for a clue of how he'll be utilized, and how the Lions might end up using their tight ends, New Orleans is a good place to start.