Even before his final season with Notre Dame, tight end Tyler Eifert was considered one of the safest prospects who was eligible for the 2013 NFL draft. After solidifying his status as a first round pick with an impressive campaign that carried through to the National Championship Game, the only question mark surrounding the overwhelmingly talented tight end was what team would land him.
Surprisingly, during the build up to the draft, that question was much harder to answer than one would think.
A tight end was never going to go in the top 10, while there was enough talent at other positions to push him further down the pecking order into the late teens. From there it was a matter of finding a fit for him. Finding a team who could consider him one of the final steps towards creating a championship roster. A handful of teams made sense, but the Cincinnati Bengals weren’t one of those that immediately came to mind.
Yet, when the Bengals took over on the 21st pick the provided the second biggest shock of the night by taking the Notre Dame tight end. The biggest shock clearly being the Dolphins trade up for Dion Jordan.
The Bengals have one of the most talented, well-rounded rosters in the league. In fact, if it wasn’t for the underwhelming performances of Andy Dalton, they would have won the AFC North with ease last season. With that balanced roster and no clear successor to replace Dalton and promise immediate success, the Bengals were able to take the most valuable player on their board regardless of position.
Eifert was that player and now he will fit into the supporting cast that has carried it’s quarterback for much of his career. After re-signing Andre Smith, the Bengals are retaining a young offensive line that was amongst the very best in the league last year. Replacing BenJarvus Green-Ellis with Giovani Bernard can only improve the position, while AJ Green, Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu are developing together to become an outstanding wide receiving corps.
At tight end, the Bengals already have Jermaine Gresham, a former first round pick who is still in the relatively early stages of his career. Gresham has struggled with drops throughout his career so far and is yet to really clamp down the starting position in Cincinnati. If he translates to the professional ranks immediately, Eifert will be able to take Gresham’s starting spot from him, but his real value will come in supplanting Orson Charles from the second spot on the depth chart.
Charles was a rookie last year who played 304 snaps. Most of his time on the field was spent blocking, as he finished the season with just 101 yards on eight receptions. The 22-year-old former Georgia prospect is 6’2 and roughly 250 lbs. He has decent athleticism, but based solely on his rookie season he appears set to have a career as primarily a blocking tight-end. In today’s league, the value of that role has severely diminished without a real receiving threat.
The 24-year-old Gresham has gone in the other direction, as he is capable of making plays as a receiver and is an improving blocker. Gresham is a two-way tight end, but not consistent enough to be a real difference-maker.In the 22-year-old Eifert, the Bengals are hoping that they have found that consistent receiving threat who can develop his blocking in a similar style to Gresham.
Jay Gruden’s offense isn’t based on two tight-end sets, but it did incorporate them last year in spite of having no real second option at the position. Early in the season Armon Binns was motioned into a tight end position and used in different ways, while at other times Gruden would bring in a tackle eligible offensive lineman to base play-action off of or run behind. Over a four game sample, Weeks 1, 2, 3 and 15 of the 2012 Regular Season, the Bengals used two tight end sets 54 times.
Those 54 plays compromised of 36 running plays and 18 passing plays. Thirty-two times those sets were used on first down, 11 times on second down and 11 times on third down. Crucially, Gruden wasn’t very creative with how he used these formations and when he used them. Eight of the third down calls came when they needed just one yard for the first down, more often than not those plays were simple runs between the tackles into crowded defensive fronts.
Ever since Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernadez entered the league, the two tight-end formation has become more and more attractive to offensive coordinators. This is because it is a balanced personnel grouping that teams can both run and pass effectively from with the right tight ends. It is a difficult formation for defenses to blitz or bring in special packages to counter and allows the offense to dictate play-calling to some degree.
When the Bengals used their two tight-end sets during this sample of last season, they averaged 3.58 yards per running play and 6.22 yards per passing play, scoring three rushing touchdowns and one receiving touchdown. Considering BenJarvus Green-Ellis averaged 3.9 yards per carry and Dalton averaged 6.8 yards per attempt throughout the whole season, this sample at the very least was showing that the Bengals’ two tight-end set was not efficient.
By bringing in Eifert, the two tight-end set should not only become more efficient, but it should also open up the Bengals’ playbook and allow Jay Gruden to use his creativity. Depending on how Eifert translates and Gresham reacts to his presence, the duo could mesh to the point that it becomes a staple of their offense.
The Market Leaders
The Patriots’ offense is special for many reasons. Two of those reasons wear jerseys 87 and 81. Gronkowski and Hernandez are obviously special players and it’s next to impossible to replicate what they do on the field with anyone else, but replicating their usage and impact is possible if other teams desire to do it.
There are two tight-ends on the field, but Aaron Hernandez is split wide to the bottom of the screen, with Rob Gronkowski in the tight-end position to his side of the field. The Titans leave a cornerback on Hernandez, but they are forced to leave him in single coverage as they try to counter both the running threat and the two receivers at the top of the screen.
Brady immediately recognizes the mismatch and motions to Hernandez before snapping the football. Having two tight-ends on the field forced the defense to stay in it’s base package, which gave Hernandez the opportunity to catch a quick pass before turning upfield for a nine yard gain.
Just two plays later, the Patriots are in a third and one situation. Both tight ends are lined up to the left of the offensive line, with Wes Welker behind the right tackle. Even on third and one in a tight formation, the Titans are still forced to respect the receiving threat of the Patriots’ tight ends. As such, the cornerback and safety to their side of the field are deep off the line of scrimmage.
Aaron Hernandez isn’t a dramatically better blocker than Jermaine Gresham or so great that Eifert couldn’t potentially reach his level as a rookie, but against a cornerback he will always have the weight advantage. That advantage allows him to push the defender completely out of the lane, while Gronkowski’s assignment is so far down the field that he doesn’t need to block him for Ridley to get into the hole.
Notably, the Titans kept their other safety to Brandon Lloyd’s side of the field, so he is also not in position to make a play against the run. Translating this situation to the Bengals, that safety would definitely be pulled across to that side of the field because of the presence of AJ Green.
Two tight-end formations are all about creating and exploiting matchups. On this play, Stevan Ridley runs through a huge hole because the Titans were expecting a run between the tackles on third and one. That pushed their linebackers to the middle of the field and kept their defensive line narrow, which exposed them to an edge run where their tight ends had advantages over defensive backs.
Had the Titans changed up their package to put a linebacker, safety or defensive end over the Patriots’ tight ends, then, theoretically, the Patriots would have created a mismatch target in the passing game because a minority of players who play those positions can match the athleticism of a good two-way tight end.
The Bengals’ Potential
Although Tom Brady receives a huge amount of credit for the Patriots’ offensive success, his intelligence before the snap is only part of it. When you compare the Patriots’ offensive personnel from last season to the Bengals’ projected personnel entering this season, there is very little between them.
Obviously the two tight ends in New England can’t be compared to Jermaine Gresham and a rookie, but the Bengals do have a slightly better offensive line and significantly better outside receivers because of AJ Green’s impact. In the backfield, Gio Bernard needs to prove himself, but it’s not like any of the Patriots’ backs are on Adrian Peterson’s level.
If Gresham can sustain the level of blocking that he achieved last year and Eifert develops enough during his rookie season, the Bengals should be able to manipulate the defense to some extent if not with with the same results as the Patriots. Having two decent blocking tight ends who are dangerous receiving threats will mean that they can pick and choose matchups in the passing game and avoid running into crowded boxes.
From there, the responsibility falls on the shoulders of Jay Gruden to be creative with the benefits that his personnel groupings can offer him. Gruden’s offense showed sporadic creativity during the four-game sample from last season. Most of his best work came with Andrew Hawkins, as he found different ways to get him the ball in space.
Hawkins doesn’t project to be a big part of the Bengals’ two tight-end packages next year. Both Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu should be ahead of him on the depth chart, while there is never a reason for AJ Green to leave the field. Jones will likely be the other receiver, because of his ability to line up in different receiver positions in different situations on the field.
One thing that Gruden has never been scared of using in his offense is misdirection. More specifically, end-arounds with his receivers.
End-arounds in the endzone must be the least successful play-call for any particular situation. The logistics of it just don’t make any sense. With no deep field for the defense to spread itself over, all 11 players are squashed closer to the line of scrimmage. In theory, that means that they should be in better position to make react to any fakes or to catch up to any ball-carrier in the open-field.
On this play, the Bengals are in a two tight-end set with both tight ends lined up to the right of the offensive line(circled). The Redskins haven’t adjusted their defense by sliding their line towards the tight ends or bringing a safety down into the box, but what they do once the ball is snapped shows that the formation has affected their thinking.
The Bengals specifically run a play fake over their tight ends to that side and all of the Redskins’ defenders who initially appeared out of position are sprinting towards that part of the field. When Dalton and Green-Ellis fake the hand-off, not one linebacker is in position to react to AJ Green coming on the end-around, while the Bengals’ left tackle, Andrew Whitworth, is free to fall into the flat ahead of him because he wasn’t needed to sell the fake.
Green is in open space with two blockers creating a lane for him to the endzone. He is stopped just short, but because the Bengals came out with a heavy-set to the right-hand side, before selling the fake and running at their weak-side, the defense was caught completely off-balance.
This is the type of creativity that Gruden would need to infuse into his two tight-end sets. The possibilities are much greater because of the versatility that comes with two quality players at that one position.
Something that will really make Andy Dalton’s life easier, if he learns how to carry them out, will be pre-snap audibles in a two tight-end set with one running back and two receivers.
I already noted that the two tight-end set is very balanced in that you can both run and pass from it, but the really beautiful thing about the personnel package when put together properly is it’s ability to morph so easily post-snap.
With a simple shift, the two tight ends can move out to change the formation to four receivers. If the defense doesn’t react to this shift, then a quick pass into the flat can result in very easy yards.
The three diagrams above show the different ways that the defense is most likely to react. In every single one they are sacrificing integrity of their formation and exposing themselves to a potential mismatch.
Only the very best defenses have versatile linebackers who can cover all over the field, safeties who can run with receivers and cornerbacks who are physical enough to match up to tight ends. The odds on a defense having the talent to match up to this offensive formation comfortably are very low.
It’s very difficult to blitz this formation after the initial shift, and the free safety is under pressure to read the quarterback or give up single coverage to an outside receiver. For the Bengals, one of those outside receivers is AJ Green. If neither cornerback can win, one of the receiving tight ends(Eifert and Gresham) is guaranteed to be in space against a linebacker, unless the defense drops the free safety to play zero coverage on the backend. That in itself is a victory for the offense.
That still leaves the running-back in the backfield, who is facing a six man box with five blockers(a favorable matchup) or the prospect of being covered by a linebacker coming out of the backfield. This year that running-back isn’t going to be the cumbersome BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but rather the excellent receiver Giovani Bernard.
But let’s bring it back to the original formation…
This time the quarterback calls a complete audible. He drops back into the shotgun, both his tight ends flip to one side of the field and his receivers move to the right side. Crucially, his running-back stacks behind the tight-end split wide left to empty the backfield.
Again, the defense can react to this in a number of ways, but each way will stress aspects of their players that is likely to create a mismatch or soft spot.
This reaction sees the cornerback follow the receiver across the field and the free safety to the top of the screen slides to that side of the field to give them coverage over the top. The inside linebacker must move to the right side of the defensive formation or the linebacker covering the tight end in the slot is immediately exposed to a quick slant against the presumably more agile tight end.
Weak-side linebackers and strong safeties are supposed to be able to play in space, but lining them up against a receiving tight-end and receiving running-back on the edge is not an ideal scenario for a defense.
If the defense leaves the cornerback to cover the tight end outside, the offense would expect that to be a mismatch in their favor, while the wide receiver on the opposite side will either have a free release or be covered by a linebacker.
In the second image the defensive line has widened itself to be in better position to rush the passer, with no running-back in the backfield. This exposes the defense to Andy Dalton’s underrated ability to scramble or a quick screen to the running-back on the edge, a running back who has tight ends leading the way with offensive linemen in the vicinity to get out in front if executed correctly.
If the defense approaches this play in a nickel package, with more than four defensive backs on the field anticipating the pass or an adjustment of any kind, then the Bengals could simply line up and run the ball over the softer unit.
The evolution of the tight end position from an extra offensive lineman to a dynamic receiving threat who can still use his bulk to block defenders has dramatically changed the face of the NFL. While the Bengals are somewhat late to the party, their ability to execute this season should be as impactful as any other.
During the sample of the Bengals’ offense that this analysis was carried out on, it was clear that the Bengals’ base defense has one back, one tight end and three receivers on the field. Although Jermaine Gresham has filled that role for some time, it makes much more sense if Eifert takes over that role from Week 1 as a rookie.
Gresham and Eifert are both receiving tight ends, but they are still very different in what they can do on the field. Gresham has proven to be a big-play threat every time he gets the ball in his hands, but getting to that point can sometimes be a problem. During his three years in the league, Gresham has been targeted 166 times and dropped 24 catchable passes. He doesn’t consistently make the tough receptions over the middle and cannot be relied upon to move the chains from endzone to endzone.
In other words, Gresham is a big-play threat rather than a possession receiver.
Eifert is the opposite. According to esteemed draft analyst Sigmund Bloom:
Eifert has the big frame, long arms and soft hands to be a matchup nightmare in the passing game for smaller defensive players. He is fast and quick enough to line up outside as a wide receiver and still create separation from cornerbacks, but big enough to still make the catch against them when he doesn’t. His body control, routes and release off of the line are all wide receiver quality. Eifert is a clutch performer and will be a quarterback’s favorite, especially in the red zone.
Those are all the traits of a possession receiver on the NFL level. When you look at the Bengals’ prospective base offense, that is the one role that they haven’t properly filled. Of course, AJ Green is going to cover a lot of that, but defenses key in on him so he can’t be looked to every time Dalton needs to convert a third or fourth down.
WR1: AJ Green.WR2: Marvin Jones.
WR3: Mohamed Sanu.
TE: Tyler Eifert.
HB: Giovani Bernard.
That is the personnel grouping that should be on the field the most for the Bengals next year. Green is an elite talent who can do everything, Jones is a sparkplug who isn’t limited to playing in space and making plays, but is at his best when put there. Sanu is a matchup problem from the slot who should be a nightmare to cover in the endzone after showing flashes as a rookie. Eifert is the big body who can be physical and absorb hits as he makes receptions.
In the process of carrying out his own role, Eifert would be taking a huge amount of pressure off of AJ Green and allowing the versatility of those around him to be used more often.
Once that much talent is put on the field together, with an outstanding offensive line and sprinklings of Jermaine Gresham and Andrew Hawkins in different scenarios, even Andy Dalton could lead a team past the first round of the NFL playoffs. At least he already understands that he has no excuses.
You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf