An alternative to Tony Gonzalez?

BRADENTON , Fla. -- As the Atlanta Falcons watch the workouts at the NFL scouting combine this week, it’s pretty much a certainty their coaches and scouts will be keeping a close eye on Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert.

The Falcons have been lobbying hard for Tony Gonzalez to return for one more season, but they have to be ready in case the veteran decides to retire. That’s the scenario in which Eifert could be a target with the 30th overall pick in the draft.

“Tyler is going to be a guy that’s going to step in and be an impact player, probably much easier than the typical player making this transition,’’ said Chris Weinke, director of football operations at IMG Academy, where Eifert has spent the past six weeks preparing for the combine.

Eifert and Stanford’s Zach Ertz are widely considered to be the top two tight ends in the draft and many mock drafts have them going late in the first round. Bringing back Gonzalez is Atlanta’s preference, but Eifert might be the best alternative.

“I thought he was a great player when he got here, but I think he’s even better now,’’ Weinke said. “What I mean by that is he’s got the God-given athletic ability, but he’s taken that and maximized it. Just his fluidity in his route running and his consistency catching the ball, what I’ve seen over the last few weeks is a guy that’s even better than when he came in here. The most important thing to me is the way he carries himself. This kid already is a pro.’’

If Gonzalez does decide to retire, it could disrupt Atlanta’s entire offense. Gonzalez has been an integral part of the passing game and few tight ends can duplicate his skill set. But Eifert is a reasonable facsimile and he already is fairly polished.

He had 50 catches for 685 yards and four touchdowns last season and had 140 catches for 1,840 yards and 11 touchdowns in his college career. Like Gonzalez and some other top tight ends, Eifert has basketball in his background.

His father, Greg, played basketball at Purdue in the 1980s. Eifert was a very good high school basketball player in Indiana.

“I think there are a lot of similarities,’’ Eifert said. “Just the way you use your body in basketball to get position. It’s similar to what a tight end has to do.’’

Early in his college career, Eifert wasn’t known as much of a blocker.

“That’s always been kind of my knock, that I can’t block,’’ Eifert said. “But I think I’ve gotten better at that and continue to improve. I think I’m a pretty good blocker now.’’

Eifert says he has no strong preference about which team drafts him. But he does have a clear vision of what he thinks his role will be in the NFL.

“As a complete tight end that can stay on the field for all three downs, that can make plays and stretch the defense,’’ Eifert said.

That could be exactly what the Falcons are looking for.