CINCINNATI -- Bengals tight end Tyler Kroft is not a carbon copy of Tyler Eifert, but maybe he doesn’t need to be.
After a two-touchdown day against the Browns last Sunday, Kroft is doing just fine being himself.
“Tyler has done a great job,” said Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. “Even going into this game, it’s one of those things, 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. He proved that last week. You’ve got to keep getting better and keep finding ways to get all our guys involved. He’s part of it, obviously, with the two touchdowns -- and a great catch on that second one. He’s just been a guy who’s been solid.”
Eifert has been out since Week 2, when he caught a pass against the Texans that would have been a touchdown but was called back because he stepped out of bounds. He hasn’t stepped on the practice field since that night, having aggravated a back injury that Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said was similar to the one that ended his season early last year.
Eifert, perhaps more than anyone, needed to have a big season this year. He’s already proved his talent, catching 13 touchdowns in 2015 as one of Dalton’s best red zone threats. But he hasn’t proved he can stay healthy.
Since that 2015 season, it’s been stop-and-go with an assortment of injuries. He has never played a full season in Cincinnati, and that’s likely one of the reasons he has not locked up a new contract. The Bengals were concerned enough about Eifert’s injury history to take a good look at O.J. Howard in the 2017 draft, although they ultimately picked wide receiver John Ross.
The Bengals signed linebacker Vontaze Burfict to a new deal this summer even though Burfict has missed six games in the past two seasons due to suspension. Eifert was a target for a new contract as well in the offseason, but nothing happened on that front. His availability could be one reason for that.
After Kroft’s big day, there will surely be questions about Eifert and whether he’s worth the risk. Kroft has only three touchdown receptions in the NFL, but he proved he had the ability to catch passes in college. He led Rutgers in receiving yards and catches as a sophomore, and that caught the attention of the Bengals in the 2015 draft.
“That’s a skill that’s a little bit harder to teach. ... We want them to have a certain knack as a receiver,” Lewis said. “We’ve been fortunate that the guys we’ve chosen have had that, yet they’re big men who are 6-5 and 6-6 and weigh 250 or 260 or 270 at times, and that’s what you want.”
The Bengals have ways to protect their investment if they re-sign Eifert. They could structure his contract similar to Burfict’s, giving Eifert significant per-game roster bonuses every time he is on the active 46-man game-day roster. Per-game roster bonuses are common for the Bengals, though Burfict’s $140,000-per-game bonus is significantly higher than most.
They could place the franchise tag on Eifert as well and bet on him to play out the 2018 season. A franchise tag for a tight end came at a cost of about $9.7 million last year, so that would be no small fee.
Eifert was responsible for half the team’s receiving touchdowns last season despite playing only eight games. He has clear value in Cincinnati, especially considering how much the offense has struggled and how much the team values continuity.
Healthy or not, if Eifert hits the market, he should draw interest from teams that need a tight end, especially one who’s shown production in the past.
The question is: Is that team Cincinnati? While Eifert heals, they’re leaning on Kroft more than they ever did last year. In the past two weeks, he’s taken almost every offensive snap.
“He had a [good game] in Green Bay, but he’s the guy in that spot,” Lewis said. “If it was Tyler Eifert, chances are the ball would go to him. But Tyler Kroft is showing that he’s every bit as good a receiver. He’s done a good job on the line blocking. And now, when his number is called in the passing game -- when the coverage dictates the ball should go to him -- he’s shown that he can be in the right spot and come up with a contested catch. It gives a quarterback confidence. ‘If that’s the way it has to go, boom. Now it’s my job to deliver it on time.’ [Dalton] and Tyler made a very good [connection] for the second touchdown particularly.”
The Bengals have always seen Kroft as the No. 2 option to Eifert, and he has responded to their faith in him. But there’s a difference in being the second option in a two-tight-end set and the main guy, as Eifert has been.
Kroft is going to have to put together more than one good game to replace Eifert. But if he can show some consistency, it could make the decision easier at the end of the season.
“Ever since we picked him, he’s been everything we expected,” Lewis said. “Of that group of tight ends that came out [in the 2015 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."