The rise of Marvin Jones and Giovani Bernard helped open up the playbook, but tight end Tyler Eifert gave Andy Dalton an over-the-middle target he could take advantage of.
Under offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, Eifert had an uneven, yet promising, rookie season, posting 39 receptions, 445 yards receiving and two touchdowns. He did most of his damage through the year's first five games, grabbing 17 passes for 212 yards receiving, proving to be an after-the-catch threat that can stretch the seam like a mini Vernon Davis (GIFs via Steelers Depot). In his NFL 1000 series, NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller called Eifert “one of the most promising young tight ends in the game,” and wrote that he showed flashes of dominance in his first season.
Eifert certainly has the ability to take the second-year leap, but the Bengals new offense with Hue Jackson, Gruden’s replacement, and the presence of Jermaine Gresham will prevent him from becoming a true No. 1 tight end in 2014.
Initial reports of Cincinnati’s offense might be seen as promising for Eifert. Geoff Hobson, editor of Bengals.com, emphasized Jackson’s desire to speed up the tempo this year. Hobson said:
Jackson is intent on running more plays than last year. Already a good offense (the Bengals finished 10th last season), they ran the sixth most plays in the NFL with 1,097. But that was due in large part because of a third-ranked defense and not because they were a fast-paced unit.
More snaps means more chances for Eifert to catch the ball. Good, right? But the fault in this assumption is ignoring Jackson’s fixture of a strong running game. In an interview with Hobson, Jackson said that the offense starts up front, referring to not just the offensive line, but the tight ends as well.
'I don’t care how good we can play at quarterback or how good our receivers are,' said Jackson. 'Until we block people consistently play in and play out—and I’m not saying we haven’t—until we block people the way I think they should be blocked . . . we won’t get to where we want to go.'
Jackson’s overarching philosophy is to use the run to set up the pass, according to ESPN Bengals reporter Coley Harvey, so he is predisposed to using tight ends that can block. This is a problem for Eifert, who scored a -8.5 in Pro Football Focus’ run-blocking ratings (subscription required), “good” for 46th out of 64 tight ends. At some points his blocking was cringe-worthy (GIF via Guyism.com). This could force him on the bench in certain run-heavy packages.
Even if Eifert sees the field just as often (ideally split out wide like a wide receiver), targets don’t come as easy in Jackson’s offense as they did in Gruden’s offense. Before Cincinnati, Jackson spent two years with the Oakland Raiders, one as the team’s offensive coordinator and one as their head coach. Josh Kirkendall of SB Nation noted that his quarterbacks in Oakland averaged 31.7 passing attempts per game, compared to 36.7 attempts per game for Cincinnati’s quarterbacks last year.
If history is correct, Andy Dalton’s passing yards will drop, while the team’s rushing attempts will go up. The drafting of running back Jeremy Hill in the second round further clarifies the Bengals' shift to a more balanced offense.
With fewer chances to catch passes, Eifert’s best chance at improving upon his rookie season would be to pass fellow tight end Jermaine Gresham on the depth chart.
Right now, Eifert and Gresham are 1a and 1b, a “tight end by committee” that received nearly an equal amount of targets last season, according to Ryan Fowler of FOX Sports. Matt Miller gave Eifert and Gresham the same overall rating, 71, in his tight end rankings.
via Pro Football Reference
It’s telling that Eifert and Gresham were equally impactful in 2013. Entering his second year, Eifert’s stock is pointing upward while Gresham is a known commodity, with four years under his belt. Eifert also provides just as much, if not more, receiving ability, without the baggage of holdings and false starts Gresham lugs along. Gresham tallied 11 penalties last season, per NFLpenalties.com.
However, in Jackson’s run-heavy offense, Gresham will likely have the edge in snaps. It’s safe to say Eifert is very, very inexperienced in run blocking, and it may take a year or two before he can do that capably at an NFL level. Gresham is no John Mackey, either, but he is more familiar with blocking NFL defenders and occasionally shows good power to drive his man forward (GIF via SBNation). Jackson will likely go with seniority over potential when the package calls for just one tight end.
Eifert is Cincinnati’s best receiving tight end on the roster, and in a league where Jimmy Graham and Jordan Cameron earn Pro Bowl berths despite rarely playing inline, he could be a seam-stretching weapon that’s just as much of a threat as Green and Bernard. But with the Bengals shifting to a run-focused offense and Gresham’s looming presence, that leap likely won’t happen anytime soon. A first-round pick just one year ago, Eifert will be one of the NFL’s most underutilized playmakers in 2014.
Tyler Eifert’s 2014 projection: 43 receptions, 496 yards, 11.5 yards per reception, 4 receiving touchdowns