The Bengals had a significant need at wide receiver this offseason, and though they held it as a priority, they didn't bend over backwards to remedy the losses of Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones. Yes, they plugged the roster holes pretty admirably with Brandon LaFell in free agency and second round pick Tyler Boyd in the 2016 NFL Draft, but a major key to their plan this year resided in the emergence of Tyler Eifert in 2015 and relying on him even more heavily in 2016.
Unfortunately, the plan has backfired a bit, as Eifert recently underwent surgery to repair a ligament in his ankle. He initially suffered the injury in the Pro Bowl, but the timetable for his return now is sometime right around the onset of the regular season. Regardless, second-year tight end Tyler Kroft is now stepping into a more prominent role with Eifert on the sidelines.
Both guys worked well together on the field last year, and Eifert is taking more of a mentor approach with Kroft while he recovers on the sidelines. A similar process began when Kroft started six games at the end of the 2015 season, three of which came when Eifert was out with a concussion and stinger.
"Tyler really looked out for me last year, and he's still doing it today, looking out for me," Kroft said of Eifert, via Bengals.com. "But it definitely, definitely helped a lot, taking a lot of snaps, especially toward the end of the year last year."
Eifert's message to Kroft has been to simply relax and don't overthink the role. "It also came down to where he kept saying, 'Don't overthink it. You're here for a reason. You know what you're doing,'" Kroft said. "Ty, as you guys know, is a little bit laid back. He doesn't try to let the moment get too big for him -- which he does a very good job of -- but yeah, you know why you're here and don't focus on what you need to do, and don't think of all the what ifs. You're here for a reason."
According to the team, particularly new dad and backup quarterback AJ McCarron, Kroft has been riding his late-season momentum from 2015 into this year's OTAs, with fellow second-year tight end C.J. Uzomah impressing as well.
"It's like a baby Eif almost when you think about it," McCarron said via Coley Harvey of ESPN. "They both have good speed, they both have good range catching the ball, and they're both able to spread the field. It's hard to replace Eif, it is. But [Kroft] is definitely the guy that you want there. He's an explosive player, and I think he's a mismatch. He's a nightmare for defenses just because he's able to spread the field with his speed, and he still has good size. So if you put a smaller DB on him or a safety, it's harder for them to guard him just because he's a bigger-bodied guy."
Last year, Kroft finished the year with 11 catches for 129 yards and 1 touchdown reception. The bulk of his stats came in the final six regular season games--particularly when filling in for Eifert, with McCarron also stepping in for Andy Dalton. While optimism is surfacing with Kroft and Uzomah in year two of their respective careers, should we expect them to still fill in at a high level if Eifert misses regular season time?
Reasons for Optimism:
Athleticism and Size: The size between Eifert and Kroft are comparable and the Bengals spoke highly of his pass-catching ability while at Rutgers, even though he never popped off the stat sheet in college. At 6'6", 245 pounds, Kroft is just five pounds lighter than Eifert, while Uzomah was known as an uber-athletic player who simply needed the polishing of pro coaches. If there's a mental hiccup by either in their development, they still can rely on their athleticism to make plays.
Late-Season Production Surge in Relief of Eifert: Kroft essentially played in four games without the services of Eifert, as the Pro Bowler left in the middle of the Week 14 game against the Steelers. Of the above-mentioned stat line from 2015, Kroft had 9 catches for 108 yards and the touchdown while relieving the injured Eifert. While he won't pile up the stats like Eifert did last year, it was nice to see him step up and contribute as the year wore on--especially with injuries piling up on offense.
Plethora of Other Weapons: Much like how Eifert benefitted from other able pass-catchers around him, Kroft will still have a stable of talented guys around him. Though Jones and Sanu are gone, Kroft will have some open looks any time A.J. Green is also on the field. LaFell and Boyd will also get their chances in the passing game, as will Giovani Bernard, so attention and respect might be taken away from the tight end spot without Eifert out there, thus giving Kroft easier and more frequent opportunities.
A Short-Term Problem: If all goes well with Eifert's recovery, reports say he shouldn't miss more than two regular season games. Of course there is always the possibility of setbacks, but the Bengals have been fortunate on the recoveries and quick returns from other star players who have undergone big procedures recently. So, even if Eifert misses regular season time, he still should be around for the bulk of the year.
Reasons for Pessimism:
Depth Issues and Inexperience: Any time I have brought up my opinion on the group quietly being one that might have needed additional attention this year, our readers have largely and vehemently disagreed. At the risk of hurting my arm from patting myself on the back, the Eifert surgery and Ryan Hewitt having a minor surgery of his own, are unfortunately backing up the notion. Now, if Eifert is to miss a couple of games at the beginning of the year as has been speculated, the immediate replacements had a total of 12 catches last year. It's going to take big leaps from Kroft and Uzomah to even come close to Eifert's 52 catches and 13 touchdowns from 2015.
Facing Tough Defenses to start 2016: If Eifert misses those first two games of 2016, Kroft and Uzomah will be going up against some tough defenses in the Jets and the Steelers in those first two games. Though Pittsburgh's defense only ranked No. 21 overall last year and 30th against the pass, those who have watched this rivalry over the years know it's never an easy feat when the Bengals face off against their heated division rival. Meanwhile, the Jets were No. 3 overall in defense last year, with a No. 13 ranking against the pass. The second-year tight ends will need to find creases in defenses that probably won't allow too many.