Few positions have evolved over the years in the game of football more so than tight end. The classic tight end was primarily an in-line blocker who could occasionally catch a short pass and break a few tackles.
The great tight ends of the ‘80s and ‘90s, however, such as Ozzie Newsome, Shannon Sharpe and Kellen Winslow, were primarily receiving tight ends who blocked only out of necessity. The position changed further in recent years, thanks in large part to Stanford at the college level and the New England Patriots in the NFL. The tight end has now become a legitimate downfield option, often times a team’s primary deep threat.
Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert fits the new-age tight end mold exemplified by former Stanford star Coby Fleener and current Patriots Pro Bowler Rob Gronkowski. Eifert, a senior, turned down the NFL after the 2011 season to return to South Bend for a final college season and to improve his stock for next year’s NFL draft (he's eligible for a fifth year in 2013, but a return is unlikely).
He was a finalist for the Mackey Award last year, given to the nation’s top tight end, but Clemson’s Dwayne Allen took home the trophy. Allen, as well as finalist Orson Charles (Georgia), are off to the NFL, and Eifert finds himself as the unquestioned best tight end in the nation.
How did a little-used sophomore in 2010 become the best in the country at his position in just over one full season? Let’s take a look at what makes Eifert such a valuable weapon for the Irish.
At 6’6” and around 250 pounds, Eifert can be a matchup nightmare for defensive backs. With Michael Floyd now an Arizona Cardinal, Eifert will be split outside more often this year with a plethora of options available in the slot (Robby Toma, Davonte Neal and Chris Brown).
While not quite the bowling ball of former Notre Dame and New York Giants star Mark Bavaro, Eifert is also difficult for smaller defenders to bring down once the ball is in his hands. He can’t elude tackles with quickness, but he can often shed them with his size and strength.
Modern tight ends must be able to stretch the field, and none are better at that than Eifert, due in large part to his long arms and ability to find holes in coverage. He’s by no means a speed demon, but he doesn’t really have to be with his elite ball skills.
Eifert had a key 37-yard reception to spark a touchdown drive in the season opener against USF and added a 38-yard touchdown reception (0:55 mark of clip) in a win over Wake Forest. His average yards per catch last season (12.75) was greater than Biletnikoff Award winner Justin Blackmon of Oklahoma State.
While his downfield ability makes him such a versatile tight end, Eifert is at his best in the red zone.
His touchdown reception and two-point conversion (3:25 of clip) in traffic against Pittsburgh allowed the Irish to escape a dangerous road test last season.
Three of his five touchdowns last season came from inside the 10-yard line. Eifert can also catch a fade pass, a play generally reserved for Michael Floyd in past seasons. Red-zone efficiency is likely to be a major emphasis for head coach Brian Kelly this season after last year’s repeated failures inside the 20-yard line.
Being a great blocker is no longer a requirement to be a great tight end.
However, Notre Dame has the tools to be a great running team this season, and Eifert will have to do his share of blocking.
While not his biggest strength, Eifert is more than an adequate blocker, and his physicality in run-blocking will work well with what new offensive line coach Harry Hiestand wants in the run game. Looking forward to the professional ranks, scouts will be pleased to see Eifert is a complete tight end.
This year’s tight end class is not as athletic as we’ve seen in recent seasons.
Ohio State’s Jake Stoneburner, Iowa’s C.J. Fiedorowicz, Auburn’s Philip Lutzenkirchen, Wisconsin’s Jacob Pedersen and Arkansas’ Chris Gragg are some other names to watch.
However, none can match the versatility of Eifert.
Notre Dame has become "Tight End U." over the past decade, churning out NFL mainstays Anthony Fasano, John Carlson and Kyle Rudolph. Eifert should be drafted higher than any of his three predecessors, most likely late in the first round.