The Cincinnati Bengals knew coming into the 2017 season that, if they were to improve on last season’s 6-9-1 record, they would need to get solid performances from a certain wide receiver named A.J. and a tight end named Tyler.
A.J. Green has given the Bengals everything they had hoped for, and then some. But what they did not count on was that it would be Tyler Kroft, and not Tyler Eifert, who would provide the impetus the Bengals needed to turn around their season.
Eifert had only one reception for four yards in the season-opening loss to the Baltimore Ravens and was more of a threat the following week as he made three catches on four targets for 42 yards.
But it was the one reception he did not make that most people will remember. Eifert caught an apparent touchdown pass that would have given Cincinnati a 13-10 lead over the Texans in the third quarter. Instead, the pass was ruled incomplete because Eifert had stepped out-of-bounds in the end zone before the catch. The Bengals settled for a Randy Bullock field goal and trailed 10-9. Houston went on to win by a score of 13-9.
Eifert injured his back in the first half of that game and elected to undergo season-ending surgery. The Bengals placed the fifth-year tight end on injured reserve on Thursday and turned the keys to the position over to Kroft.
"You have got to embrace the opportunity, but you never want anyone going down," Kroft said. "You don’t want to get the job that way, having someone go down."
But if you do get the job that way, you want to be able to step up and perform. And that is exactly what this Tyler has been able to do.
The former Rutgers’ standout was thrust into the starting lineup against Green Bay, and responded with three receptions on four targets for 28 yards, with a long of 14 yards. But it was the following week against Cleveland when Kroft really made his mark.
In the Bengals’ 31-7 win over the Browns, Kroft became the red-zone threat that Eifert normally is, when healthy. Kroft, who, like Eifert, also stands 6’6" tall, scored only the second touchdown of his career, and his first from quarterback Andy Dalton, on a 3-yard pass play early in the second quarter that gave the Bengals a 14-0 lead.
Kroft later came up with a leaping reception for a touchdown from 16-yards out to extend the Bengals’ lead to 31-0 midway through the third quarter. He finished with six receptions on seven targets for 68 yards to go with his two touchdowns.
"It just shows when we put four quarters together what we can do as a team," Kroft said after the game. "We’re getting the ball out fast and trying to get the ball to our playmakers."
Fortunately for both Kroft and the Bengals, he has quietly established himself as one of those playmakers. And, for a team that had more than its share of problems finding the end zone in 2016, and that had scored exactly zero touchdowns through the first two games of this year, his emergence could not have come too soon.
"Ever since we picked him, he’s been everything we expected," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said of Kroft. "Of that group of tight ends that came out (in the 2015 NFL Draft), we felt really good about him. He was big and strong enough, and a really good receiver of the football. He’s smart; he does a really good job; he’s conscientious – he’s everything you want as a pro. He fits into the right spots and has been able to make the football plays when we’ve needed him to."
Not only has Kroft earned the praise of his head coach, but he is beginning to earn the confidence of his quarterback, which should be good news for both him and the Bengals as the season progresses.
"Tyler has done a great job," Dalton said after the Browns’ game. "I was talking with some of the other guys and saying Tyler has been playing really well, and that he’s going to get an opportunity to really show what he can do."
Kroft continued to be effective last week when he recorded four catches on five targets for 38 yards in the Bengals’ 20-16 win over the Bills. He made a big 15-yard reception that gave Cincinnati a first down on Buffalo’s 14-yard line with less than five minutes to play and help set up the field goal that provided the final margin for the Bengals.
Eifert is not the only player dealing with injuries. Kroft has already battled neck and knee problems this season and missed multiple games last year with knee and ankle injuries.
As long as he can stay healthy, Kroft is clearly in the driver’s seat when it comes to the Bengals’ tight end position. Cincinnati does have some other pieces, though, with C.J. Uzomah and rookie Cethan Carter waiting in the wings. Ryan Hewitt is dealing with an injured knee of his own and should see some reps when he returns.
But Kroft’s recent performances leave him as the clear starter at this point, and they have also softeedn the blow of losing Eifert for the season yet again.