CINCINNATI -- After the Cincinnati Bengals' organized team activities (OTAs) this spring, injured tight end Tyler Eifert shot a few quick text messages to his slightly younger protege, fellow Bengals tight end Tyler Kroft.
"He's trying to stay in it as much as he can," Kroft said about the player he considers a mentor.
The mentor role is about the only one Eifert can fulfill right now as the four-year vet recovers from surgery to fix an ankle injury sustained in this year's Pro Bowl. Eifert is expected to have a three-month recovery, meaning it could cost him playing time at the beginning of the regular season. If Eifert does miss any games, he will be replaced by Kroft, the second-year player who played sparingly as a backup last season.
"He's looking out for me," Kroft said. "He's basically like, 'It's your time to step up right now. The team's going to need you.'"
As comforting as those words may be for Kroft, they aren't the most important Eifert has dispensed to him. Long known for his steady, even-keeled, cucumber-cool presence in the Bengals' locker room, Eifert wants Kroft to emulate that part of his style, too.
Eifert's big message to Kroft: Relax.
"It 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 to reporters this week. "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, [he says] 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."
Bengals backup quarterback AJ McCarron developed an on-field rapport with Kroft late last season when Eifert was sidelined with a concussion and stingers. As he relieved Eifert, Kroft went on to catch 11 passes for 129 yards and a touchdown. Each of his catches came in the final seven weeks of the season. At Denver in a key Week 16 Monday night game, Kroft posted a career-high four catches. Each pass was thrown by McCarron, who had to replace starting quarterback Andy Dalton after he broke his throwing thumb two weeks prior.
McCarron views Kroft as a mirror image of Eifert. Built similarly and used similarly, he believes Kroft's playing style can make it appear as if Eifert never left the lineup.
"It's like a baby Eif almost when you think about it," McCarron said. "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."
For Kroft and the Bengals, it will be hard replicating Eifert's red-zone production from last season. Of Eifert's team-high 13 touchdown receptions, 11 came from inside the opposing 20.