You don't have to be a diehard Atlanta Falcons fan to know that the tight end position is a question mark for the team right now. While there's no doubt that Atlanta faces some uncertainty at running back, linebacker and on both the offensive and defensive lines, Tony Gonzalez's status has thrust tight end to the top of the team's priority list.
Gonzalez's value to the Falcons' offense cannot be understated. Last season, he caught 93 passes for 930 yards and eight touchdowns, and he has provided a consistent security blanket on third down and in the red zone for Matt Ryan in all four of his seasons in Atlanta. Indeed, you'd be hard pressed to find a highlight reel of the Falcons' offense from the past four years that did not include a clip of No. 88 making a play.
While Tuesday brought news that Gonzalez may be reconsidering his retirement plans, nothing has changed about the fact that the future Hall of Famer will turn 38 later on this month.
Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert has been linked to the Falcons by both ESPN's Mel Kiper, Jr. (via ESPN Insider) and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's D. Orlando Ledbetter in early mock drafts. Eifert, who was recognized as the best tight end in college football this past season when he won the John Mackey Award, is widely considered to be a first-round prospect in April's draft.
Would he be the right selection for Atlanta at pick 30? Moreover, is he the tight end who could attempt to fill Tony Gonzalez's role in the Falcons' offense? As we try to answer those questions, let's compare Eifert's skills to Gonzalez's in three areas where Gonzalez has excelled for Atlanta: making the "spectacular" catch, catching the ball in traffic and beating defenders on jump balls in the end zone.
Making The "Spectacular" Catch
Gonzalez has some of the best hands in the league, and he's maintained his athleticism well into his 30s. This play from 2011 against the Eagles is a perfect example of why Gonzalez is so special. Even though there were three Eagles' defenders around him, Matt Ryan had enough faith in Gonzalez to deliver the ball to his tight end anyway. Gonzalez rewarded Ryan's faith with a one-handed catch, not losing his concentration while he was surrounded by the crowd.
Eifert shows off a little bit of his own athleticism in this highlight from 2011 against Boston College. Eifert is a fluid route runner and he does a good job of catching the ball with his hands like Gonzalez. He has the tools to make the kind of athletic catches that Atlanta fans have come to appreciate from Gonzalez.
Catching The Ball In Traffic
How many times have you seen Tony Gonzalez make a catch when it appeared as though his defender had him covered? Gonzalez knows how to use his 6-5 frame to his advantage and he's leveraged his size advantage into several contested receptions during his time with the Falcons. Gonzalez's ability to catch the ball in traffic is arguably what makes him most valuable to Matt Ryan.
Eifert isn't afraid of being physical and he's got a 6-5 frame like Gonzalez. He was Notre Dame's primary weapon in the passing game last year, so he saw a lot of tight coverage. Even still, Eifert was able to come up with some big receptions for the Irish when they needed them most. Eifert understands how to use his size to his advantage, and that will serve him well in the NFL.
Beating Defenders On Jumpballs In The End Zone
Stop me if you've heard this before: Tony Gonzalez was a basketball player at Cal. Throughout his career, Gonzalez has reminded fans of his basketball roots by leaping up at that the football in the red zone as if he's about to grab a rebound. It's no secret that Ryan likes to target Gonzalez in the red zone, and Gonzalez's ability to jump up and pluck the ball at its highest point has caused all kinds of fits for opposing defenses. Whichever tight end Atlanta brings in will have to be able to jump if they want to be the kind of weapon that Gonzalez has been through his career inside of the opponent's 20-yard line.
Eifert is no stranger to going airborne to make a catch. Partly because of tight coverage, and partly because of erratic quarterback play from Everett Golson and Tommy Rees, Eifert has had to make his share of acrobatic catches in his Notre Dame career. In his profile of Eifert for CBSSports.com, Dane Brugler noted that Eifert "Elevates well to go up and attack the ball, just needs a chance and chances are he'll come down with it - very good at mid-air adjustments, making a lot of catches with his feet off the ground."
Whether drafting Eifert in the first round to replace Gonzalez is Atlanta's best move will depend on how the draft plays out in front of Atlanta. If there's a defensive front seven prospect on the board when the Falcons pick then Atlanta could be better served by addressing its defense first and waiting until round two or three to draft a tight end like Florida's Jordan Reed or San Diego State's Gavin Escobar.
However, if Atlanta does end up with Eifert, the evidence suggests that Eifert could bring some of the key physical tools to the tight end position that Atlanta will be seeking to replace if and when Tony Gonzalez retires.