Tyler Eifert-Bengals pairing could be mutually beneficial
As soon as the Bengals selected Tyler Eifert with the No. 21 pick in this year's draft, speculation began regarding exactly how much the Notre Dame product could help Cincinnati's offense.
What we all might have failed to consider here is the reverse hypothetical -- how big a boost Eifert will receive from being a piece of the Bengals' attack.
QB Andy Dalton, for starters, represents a substantial upgrade over Notre Dame starter Everett Golson, who led the Irish to the BCS title game but completed just 58 percent of his passes and often utilized a run-first mentality. Eifert also now gets to play alongside proven tight end Jermaine Gresham, a legitimate No. 1 tight end and producer of 64 catches last season; the next most productive TE behind Eifert (50 catches) on the Notre Dame roster last season was Troy Niklas, with five grabs. Then there is also the presence of wide receiver A.J. Green. He alone often commands attention from multiple defenders, clearing space on the rest of the field.
All of that should work to Eifert's advantage in his rookie season.
The Bengals wasted no time beginning to implement more two tight end sets into their offense, using their recent rookie minicamp to see some of what Eifert can do. Which is, to sum up, pretty much everything you'd want from a tight end.
Take Eifert's game against Purdue last season, for example. The 6-foot-5 Eifert caught four passes for 98 yards in the Irish's 20-17 win -- had Golson looked for him more frequently, Eifert easily would have topped 150 yards receiving and scored once or twice, because he worked his way into favorable matchups all afternoon.
What we're about to take a look at is all from the first quarter of that game.
Here's a shot of the first play Notre Dame ran from scrimmage. That's Eifert (boxed) lined up wide as a split end, one-on-one with Purdue cornerback Josh Johnson, who recently signed as an undrafted free agent with the Chargers.
Golson gave Eifert a second to clear Johnson's press-coverage attempt, then simply lofted a pass downfield. Against the 5-foot-10 Johnson, Eifert had a substantial physical advantage. He leaped and hauled in a 22-yard completion. The Irish left Eifert in that position on their second play, but Johnson batted down a pass after Eifert ran a short curl route.
Eifert also spent time lined up as a traditional tight end, next to Notre Dame's outside tackles. He is more than capable as a blocker -- another reason he could pair well with Gresham, whom Pro Football Focus graded out as the Bengals' second-worst run blocker in 2012.
In our next screen grab, Eifert's in an H-back role. He opened this formation offset on the right side of the line, before motioning into the backfield as a blocker on 3rd-and-1.
Notre Dame ran for the first down here, right behind Eifert as he cut back off the center's left shoulder to pick up a crashing linebacker.
The Irish also implemented what was essentially a four-receiver look. Golson set up in the pistol, with a six-man front (five linemen, one tight end), two wide receivers to his right, and Eifert and a receiver to his left.
This became one of those "Why didn't Golson throw him the football?" instances from Notre Dame's win. Eifert, operating out of the slot, ran a wheel route, looping around the receiver next to him to put himself in another man-up situation with Johnson. The Purdue safeties drifted toward the middle of the field, leaving Eifert and Johnson on an island with no other defenders in striking distance. Golson wound up scrambling on the play.
Later, out of a similar formation, Eifert sprinted out in front of the receiver to fake a block on Johnson as Notre Dame ran a WR screen play-action. Again, he wound up with no one but Johnson playing defense on him, this time in the end zone; again, Golson delivered the ball elsewhere.
And one more, with Notre Dame spreading the field further.
That's a pretty standard shotgun look. However, unlike on previous plays where Eifert drew cornerback coverage, he's shadowed there by a linebacker. Purdue then released him into the middle of a zone coverage, and Golson hit Eifert up the seam for a big gain.
Without even taking into account Cincinnati's other weapons, it's pretty easy to recognize why the front office (as well as the front offices of several other teams) were very high on Eifert entering the draft. He's the type of do-everything tight end that the league covets right now, somewhat cut from the Rob Gronkowski mold.
Eifert may not be quite the masher that Gronkowski is at the line and he's still developing as a blocker, but the potential is there for Cincinnati to employ Eifert and Gresham in a similar way to New England's two tight end look -- the Patriots ask Gronkowski to do a lot more blocking than people may realize, allowing Hernandez to float.
Gresham (who's still just 24, by the way) can create matchup problems much in the way that Eifert does, so the Bengals' options ought to be wide open in terms of where they line up their tight ends.
More attention on that position ought to ease some of Green's burden, too. Where Eifert's impact may be felt even more prominently, though, is in the Bengals' continued search for a No. 2 receiver. That quest has been relatively fruitless thus far, but with Eifert and Gresham both capable of splitting out wide -- and both very dangerous in the red zone -- Dalton will have options to throw to, even if the receivers behind Green falter. It is far from out of the question that the Bengals line up Green on one sideline and Eifert or Gresham on the other, with two backs, in the red zone.