For years, those who follow the NFL have noted the wear and tear that comes with the running back position. Because of the beating players who tote the rock hundreds of times a year take, teams have devalued the position in the NFL Draft in recent seasons.
In the same timeframe, teams have begun to highly value the tight end position. For instance, the Cincinnati Bengals, who have traditionally not used high picks on tight ends, used two in the first round in a four-year span.
Tyler Eifert, who was one of those picks back in 2013, has had a star-crossed career to this point. After taking a back seat to Jermaine Gresham as a rookie, Eifert had a stand out year capped off by a Pro Bowl campaign in 2015, one season after experiencing a shoulder injury that limited him to 8 snaps on 2014. After hurting his ankle in the Pro Bowl game in January, Eifert finally returned to practice on August 21st and seemed poised to suit up against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 5. But a new back issue looks to be putting off his 2016 debut.
When it comes to quarterback Andy Dalton’s thoughts on No. 85’s impact on the squad, he didn’t shy away from his praise of one of the team’s biggest offensive weapons. Dalton is definitely eager to get one of his favorite weapons back.
“I want him back whenever we can get him back, but I don’t know when that plan is,” Dalton said. “He’s one of the best tight ends in the league, and he proved that last year. When you get a guy like that back, you can do a lot more. Teams have to take notice of him. I feel like we will take a bit of a jump. That’s not to take away from the guys that we have, though. We’re just adding another piece that is really good.”
Aside from the obvious frustration from the team and fans regarding the potential of the Bengals’ red zone threat missing more time, it also points to another underlying theme that many NFL teams are facing. The need for multiple capable tight ends in a pass-happy league is becoming more and more important.
It isn’t just Eifert who is injury-plagued at the position, either. The tight end who everyone places at the top of the league at his position, Rob Gronkowski, might end up resembling RoboCop by the time he retires. This season has already seen a number of tight ends go down with injury Zach Ertz, Larry Donnell and Eric Ebron to name a few. Plus, Ladarius Green has yet to get on the field in 2016 for the Steelers.
The increased usage of the position by all teams and the request for them to block, take hits across the middle of the field and break tackles takes a toll on those players. While league rules have tried to cut down on head injuries, they still happen, and smaller defensive backs also go low on the lumbering receivers increasing the probability for more injuries.
C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Kroft:
In 13 games last year, Eifert logged 52 catches, 612 yards and 13 touchdown receptions. In the seven games played in his absence from the end of 2015 through the beginning of 2016, C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Kroft have combined for 22 catches for 161 yards and one touchdown.
While it’s important to note that backup quarterback AJ McCarron was under center for three and three-quarters of those games to end the 2015 season, Eifert’s absence has been obvious with this year’s massive red zone struggles—even with Dalton back at the helm. Uzomah and Kroft had picked up a bit of the stack between the 20-yard lines, but the need for another capable red zone target is apparent.
Uzomah, while athletically gifted, has had a couple of drops this year to go with his 11 catches for 144 yards. The blame could be placed on poor weather in Pittsburgh and tightly-contested coverage, but, you have to think these are grabs Eifert would have come down with.
However, on the plus side, you have to be pleased with the progress the raw Uzomah has shown from his rookie year to now. After logging just one catch for four yards as a rookie, Uzomah has seemingly supplanted Kroft as a more viable receiving option in his second year.
Can the Bengals continue to make a playoff push without Eifert?
Aside from the aforementioned stats, if you include last year’s Week 14 concussion he sustained against the Steelers as a missed game, since the start of 2015 the Bengals are 4-4 without Eifert in the lineup, and 10-2 with him on the field.
Though we’re not expecting Eifert to miss much more time in 2016, the team might play it cautious over the next couple of weeks because of the back and ankle ailments. If so, it doesn’t bode well for a team who has struggled to get touchdowns in the red zone, instead of settling for Mike Nugent field goals.
The Bengals can continue to survive without Eifert, but there’s an “if” associated with that survival. Aside from continued production from Uzomah and Kroft and even an uptick from them, more production is needed from receivers Brandon LaFell and Tyler Boyd. The two new wide receiver additions have made some good plays through the first four games, but have had disappearing acts as well.
Then again, when Dalton has fed A.J. Green the ball on a regular basis, it’s propelled the Bengals to their two wins this season. That is also undoubtedly a formula to success while relying on a pass rush that seems to be gaining momentum on the other side of the ball.