However, injuries and playing behind the enigma that was Jermaine Gresham kept Eifert from being a featured weapon in Cincinnati's offense. Now, Gresham is gone and Eifert is fully recovered from last year's dislocated elbow and torn rotator cuff.
It's not crazy to think getting a healthy Eifert back is the biggest addition made by the Bengals this offseason. Here's why.
Role in Offense
Cincinnati spent their first pick of the 2013 draft on Eifert in hopes he could replicate the new breed of his position -- players who can line up anywhere on the offense and dominate games. Moving TEs around on offense so they get mismatches against slower linebackers or small cornerbacks has made guys like Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham and Martellus Bennett nearly unstoppable.
Eifert showed flashes of becoming that kind of player as a rookie, but playing behind Gresham, he caught just 39 passes for 445 yards and two scores. That same year, Gresham caught 46 passes for 458 yards and four scores.
As of now, Eifert is the only TE on the roster with NFL experience, and backups C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Kroft won't get nearly as many targets as Gresham got during Eifert's rookie year. As long as Eifert is healthy he'll be the No. 1 TE on the Bengals' roster, with the other TEs rarely getting targets.
It also helps Eifert that A.J. Green is often drawing double teams while also keeping a defender back so he can't beat defenses deep. This opens up the middle of the field for TEs to do more damage. It also helps Marvin Jones who was lost year due to injury and Mohamed Sanu who has been wildly inconsistent, often disappearing in games.
This could lead to Eifert to become Andy Dalton's No. 2 pass-catcher in 2015, while catching 60-70 passes and gaining 8-10 scores. That's the optimistic line of thinking for Eifert...
Questions and Concerns
The most obvious question Eifert must answer in his third NFL season is if can he stay healthy, He missed all of last year (minus a few snaps in Week 1) and missed another game his rookie year due to a stinger.
That's 16 of a possible 32 games Eifert has missed, 17 of 34 if you count the playoffs. While it's still early in his career, Eifert now has the 'injury prone' label on him unless he can stay healthy this season.
Another problem Eifert faces is not having Jay Gruden and his pass-heavy offense. Hue Jackson has made it a point to run the ball more frequently since becoming the team's offensive coordinator. That led to Dalton's passing attempts dropping from 586 (under Gruden as OC) in 2013 to 481 in 2014. With Gresham being the only capable TE last year, he caught 62 passes for 460 yards and five scores in 15 games.
While Eifert appears to be more talented than Gresham, is he that much better than Gresham that he'll significantly outproduce those numbers?
Probably. After all, Eifert caught three passes on three targets in the first quarter alone at Baltimore in Week 1 before dislocating his elbow. It was clear in training camp last year the Bengals loved what they had in Eifert and were ready to make him more of a key offensive weapon than they ever did with Gresham.
Expectations for 2015
I expect Eifert to be the second-leading pass-catcher for Cincinnati this year. While Jackson emphasizes more of a run-heavy offense, he also loves featuring his TEs, if they're capable. During Hue's time in Oakland, Zach Miller, Kevin Boss and Marcel Reese (FB/TE) were featured weapons in the team's offense.
Even with Gresham not being as prominent in Cincinnati's offense last year, he still finished second on the team in catches (62) while missing one regular season game and dealing with a back injury for a good portion of the season.
Expect Eifert to catch a minimum of 60 passes this year and around seven scores. Hopefully this year he will become the star TE Cincinnati envisioned he'd become.
In turn, this should help Cincinnati climb back into the upper half the league in passing offense (finished 21st in that category last year). Eifert's impact also gives Dalton an easier and less risky target to help him finish 2015 with career-highs in completion percentage (currently 64.1 set last year) and passer rating (currently 88.8 set in 2013).
The threat of Eifert also keeps defenses from stacking the box as much and opens up more running lanes for Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard to carry Cincinnati to another top-10 rushing offense (finished 6th in 2014).