In an NFL where the tight end is becoming more and more integral, what is in store for the top tight end from the 2013 draft class?
At 6'6", 251 pounds with a 4.68 40-yard dash, Eifert certainly passes any sort of look test imposed upon him. As a 2012 Mackey Award winner (for the nation's top tight end) and finalist in 2011, the production and polish is there as well.
So, what in the world happened in Eifert's rookie season?
Eifert wasn't bad, but he certainly wasn't as successful as he could have been.
While he should be a consistent red-zone threat, Eifert scored only two touchdowns. Maybe he has the speed to press the defensive seam, but his 11.4 yards per reception sits only 29th in the league. Perhaps he profiled as the latest/greatest multi-tool tight end, but he was used more as a blocking specialist in his first season...worse yet, he wasn't all that great as a blocker!
This isn't—in any way—meant to write off Eifert and his potential. It's far too early for that! Rather, let's take a look at what's standing in between him and a big second-year leap.
Questions at Quarterback
Anytime anyone says anything about the Bengals, it's going to circle back around to quarterback Andy Dalton—and rightfully so.
While Dalton certainly has his supporters both in the fanbase and around the league, the biggest question on the minds of his detractors is whether or not he's an integral part of the Bengals' success or if he's simply along for the ride.
Worse yet, he might be holding them back.
Bleacher Report featured columnist Bryn Swartz laid out the juxtaposition of Dalton's play, here:
There are two main reasons why Dalton is in danger of either losing his starting job or walking as a free agent after this year. The first is his inconsistency. When Dalton is on, he's one of the best quarterbacks in the league. The combination of Dalton to A.J. Green is probably the most feared passing combination in the AFC. But when Dalton is off, he's as bad as it gets. And unfortunately for him and the Bengals, he's been bad in all three of his playoff games.
In fact, he's been about as bad as it gets. He's led Cincinnati to 33 points in three postseason games, throwing for one touchdown and seven interceptions. That's a combined 56.2 passer rating. That's unacceptable.
Since Dalton took over, the Bengals have done just about everything conceivable to surround him with talent. Swartz mentions Green—one of the best receivers in the league—but they've also given him tight ends like Eifert and Jermaine Gresham; Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Andrew Hawkins flanking Green at wideout, and an offensive line that was the most effective pass-blocking unit in the league last season according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
All that, and Dalton still has question marks around his play.
Wait, though, it gets worse.
Quality quarterbacking in the NFL isn't something that exists only in a perfect environment, but quality quarterbacking is more than just putting numbers in the right columns in a box score. Good quarterbacks may see their numbers decline when everything falls apart around them, but the opposite is also true: Dalton's statistical achievements may be linked to the talent around him far more than his own abilities.
That talent around Dalton hasn't gotten much better for 2014.
Hawkins is off to the Cleveland Browns. The offensive line lost Anthony Collins to Tampa Bay and may be rolling with center Trevor Robinson (their worst offensive lineman of last season) unless fourth-round pick Russell Bodine steps up in an immediate way.
The biggest offensive addition of the offseason, though, was second-round running back Jeremy Hill, who I actually like as an addition to BenJarvus Green-Ellis but isn't exactly as pressing as some other glaring holes.
This isn't a doom-and-gloom prophecy of the Bengals offense, but it's likely a step sideways in terms of talent.
Coaching and scheme is also a big question mark heading into 2014. Hue Jackson is taking over for Jay Gruden (now head coach of Washington), and that means we get to witness the age-old irony of one fanbase hyping a coach as the "greatest mind to ever strategize the game" and another to claim "good riddance, we'll be better off!"
Note: I may be practicing some hyperbole there.
Maybe Jackson is a huge improvement for Dalton. Frankly, that's the way I'm leaning, but it's not a sure thing. Dalton could feel comfortable with the scheme and take a step back once he hits the field. He could also be affected by players around him struggling with the same.
In all, Eifert can't take a step forward in 2014 if Dalton doesn't as well.
Can Eifert Co-Exist with the Rest of the Offense...Especially Jermaine Gresham?
Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com quoted Marvin Lewis as stating that the playbooks would be the same in 2014, which makes a lot of sense. Like it or not...support him or not...Dalton is in a bit of a make-or-break year.
That said, I can't think of two offensive minds much different than Jackson and Gruden. The plays on the page might be the same, but this is going to find some Jackson-style flair.
In previous stops, Jackson has always preferred a wide-open, more vertical attack. He's also, however, been more balanced, and Eifert will probably spend a little more time blocking than he did in 2013. For real football purposes, this is a good thing overall for the Bengals' offense, but it will likely mean statistical dips for fantasy owners and the Bengals' passing game.
Andy Dalton, by hook or by crook, finished as the fifth-best fantasy quarterback a year ago, thanks to some monster games against bad defenses. Adding Jackson as the play caller may actually help Dalton from a real football perspective, as a running game can help balance the offense and generate longer drives. Those longer drives should be great for an offense with as many weapons as the Bengals.
For Eifert, that could mean dips in production, but it could also mean more chances in the red zone. It could also mean more opportunities as a "sticks" player if the running game consistently generates 3rd-and-short plays.
We all know, too, that being a consistent shallow threat can mean big things when a player like Eifert also has the speed to break a double move vertical.
More than anything, Jackson as a play-caller is a little bit like Notre Dame's head coach Brian Kelly, in that he tends to ride the hot hand and find ways to get his best playmakers the ball. I wouldn't say that Hawkins wouldn't have had similar production under Jackson, but I think his featured role in last year's offense could have been Eifert's instead.
There's also the question of Gresham, who is considered more of a receiving specialist. Though he has often been unreliable, the physical tools are there just as much (if not more) than with Eifert. A worst-case scenario for Eifert's early career might be Dalton's and/or Jackson's ascent and the Bengals having a ton of offensive success, but all of that production going to Gresham.
2014 should be the year where Eifert launches into the top 10 of NFL tight ends and becomes an integral part of the Bengals offense rather than simply being another piece of the puzzle. It's clear, though, that there are a lot of moving parts, and the situation might not be entirely within his control.