There are two schools of thought concerning Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert; 1) he's really important to Cincinnati's offense and 2) he's really fucking important to Cincinnati's offense. Eifert, following a pedestrian rookie season and an injury-plagued sophomore year, broke out in 2015 with a team-leading (and position leading across the NFL) 13 touchdowns. In addition, he secured 52 receptions and 615 yards receiving, mostly as a third non-redzone option behind five-time Pro Bowler A.J. Green and the recently departed Marvin Jones.
Now that Cincinnati is tasked with retooling their wide receiver roster, featuring Green, rookies, a veteran in Brandon LaFell and fan-favorites like Jake Kumerow, James Wright and Mario Alford, none of whom have a secured spot on the 53-man roster this year, and are hopeful for Lord Vader-like rises. With this, Eifert becomes Cincinnati's most important player.
Often serving as a distraction against defenses obsessed with A.J. Green, Eifert has proven himself as an elite game-changer, helping Cincinnati's impressive comeback bid against the Seattle Seahawks, and becoming one of the league's most efficient redzone players - 11 of 13 touchdowns last season were inside opponents' 20-yard line.
On April 13, Cincinnati executed the inevitable, exercising Eifert's fifth-year option, a byproduct of collective bargaining negotiations for all first-round draft picks.
"We had very high expectations for Tyler when we drafted him, and he has met them all," said head coach Marvin Lewis at the time. "He's a hugely important part of our team as we go forward."
The fourth-year tight end will "only" earn a base salary of $765,409 with a matching roster bonus this season. The fifth-year option will vastly increase his salary to a fully guaranteed $4.782 million in 2017. From this moment until free agency in 2018, Eifert will receive serious coin. Obviously. For the past five months, teams have signed their premiere tight ends to lucrative extensions, including Washington's Jordan Reed, who inked a five-year deal worth $50 million with $22 million guaranteed, which was announced by the Redskins on Thursday.
EXTENSIONS SIGNED BY TIGHT ENDS IN 2016:
Based on his versatility (size over the secondary and speed against linebackers) importance to quarterback Andy Dalton and the uncertain nature of Cincinnati's passing game, it's easy to forecast Eifert receiving more money than the lucrative deals tight ends have signed in recent months. It's almost a given. The only question will be, when that time comes, is if Eifert will be the highest paid tight end in the NFL.
If there's a concern, it's durability.
In three seasons with the Bengals, Eifert has played 29 of 48 regular season games, suffering from a host of injuries, from a dislocated elbow, a torn labrum, a neck injury (2013), and a wrist injury that forced him to miss several preseason games during his rookie year. Even last season, during his breakout year, Eifert missed three games (the second Browns game with a neck injury and the 49ers and Broncos games with a concussion suffered against the Steelers in Week 13).
Almost predictably, Eifert ended his breakout season with a sprained ankle during the non-contact exhibition in Hawaii; thankfully, it shouldn't impact the regular season this year.
It's doubtful Cincinnati's position for the inevitable contract extension will be influenced by any durability concerns. In fact, he should be one of the league's highest paid tight ends, especially for a team with lesser weapons than this time last year, supported by a number of unproven prospects who could rise or falter.
Who can know anything about that in May?