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2017 Bengals Positional Review: Tight Ends

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CINCINNATI, OH - DECEMBER 4: Tyler Eifert
CINCINNATI, OH - DECEMBER 4: Tyler Eifert /
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Cincinnati Bengals tight ends were disappointing in 2017, but Eifert barely saw the field. If he can stay healthy, watch for a turnaround in 2018.

The Bengals’ pass attack was not horrendous last year, but that was no thanks to the tight ends. Of the roughly 300 catches all Bengals pass catchers had tight ends only accounted for 18% of them. Whether or not that lack of involvement was a function of Tyler Eifert’s injury, new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor’s schematic changes or quarterback Andy Dalton losing trust in the position may not resolve itself until 2018, either. No matter what the issue was last year, the Bengals need to ensure that the tight ends are an integral part of the offense moving forward.

The most notable issue with the tight end position in 2017 was Tyler Eifert‘s season-long stay on the Injured Reserve. Eifert, once a cornerstone of the offense, has now been sidelined by injury two consecutive years. Most problematically, it’s Eifert’s back that has ailed him recently, which is an injury that can often linger throughout a player’s career. Hopefully, the long layoff has allowed Eifert to heal, but he has yet to prove he can stay healthy.

With Eifert only totaling 4 catches for 46 yards and no touchdowns, somebody had to occupy his role as “red zone target” last year. Third-year tight end Tyler Kroft stepped up as a touchdown threat, but he was not very effective as a pass catcher between the twenties. Kroft ended last year with 7 touchdowns, but only 42 catches for 404 yards. Essentially, Kroft was useful in the red zone, but didn’t really stretch the field like Eifert can. Kroft proved last year that he’s a solid tight end, but isn’t a viable starter for the Bengals moving forward.

Aside from Eifert and Kroft, there wasn’t much else to look at on the Bengals roster last year. C.J. Uzomah, a fifth-round pick in the same class as Kroft, was the clear backup to Kroft in 2017, only receiving 10 catches for 92 yards and 1 TD. Uzomah, even with Eifert injured, didn’t really contribute much to this passing attack.

The Bengals drafted Buffalo’s Mason Schreck in the seventh round of last year’s draft, too. Schreck had an injury-plagued career at Buffalo and spent the entire 2017 season on injured reserve. He was a developmental prospect, but if the Bengals give time to add muscle and learn NFL technique, Schreck may become a versatile tight end. Unfortunately, Schreck wasn’t able to show any of those skills last year.

What changed from 2016

The core group of tight ends didn’t change at all from 2016. Schreck obviously wasn’t on the roster in 2016, but he was not a relevant part of last year’s group either. Eifert was the headliner of the 2016 tight ends, but he still had to fight through health issues – namely, his back. However, Eifert played enough to tally 29 catches for 392 yards and 5 TDs.

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In Eifert’s stead, C.J. Uzomah actually stepped up more so than Tyler Kroft, but neither had particularly productive seasons. Uzomah finished 2016 with 25 catches for 234 yards and a TD, while Kroft had only 10 catches for 92 yards. Both tight ends were in their second seasons as pros, so they were still developing as players. Regardless, there’s enough of a sample size to show that neither Kroft nor Uzomah are anything more than average tight ends.

The Bengals utilized their tight ends more in 2016, but that was mostly due to Eifert’s presence on the field. Over the course of the past two seasons, it has become clear that the Bengals’ tight end play revolves almost entirely around Eifert’s health. When Eifert is at his best, he is an elite red zone target and an excellent field stretcher. He’s a weapon on par with Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz. However, when Eifert is not on the field, opposing defenses don’t respect the tight end as much, hurting the Bengals’ offensive productivity as a unit. Eifert’s improved health in 2016 compared to 2017 may have been the reason the offense was more successful two years ago than last year.

What to improve in 2018

Staying. Healthy. If Eifert can finally play a full, or even near-full, season, the position will drastically improve overall. A healthy Eifert is likely a third option in the passing game behind only wide receiver A.J. Green and either running back Joe Mixon or Giovani Bernard. Most importantly, Eifert can be the primary red zone threat next year; the only other respectable target inside the 20 on the current roster is A.J. Green. The Bengals wisely signed Eifert to a 1-year, incentive-laden “prove it” deal; if Eifert returns to form, he can boost this tight end squad to one of the better groups in the league.

As for Kroft, he should contribute to the offense in a backup capacity. Working behind Eifert, Kroft can be a solid blocker and a red zone target. What could be particularly effective next season are two tight end sets in the red zone. Kroft’s most valuable contributions to the offense in 2017 came in the red zone as he caught 5 TDs. If the Bengals used those two tight end sets, forcing defenses to guard Kroft, Eifert, and Green, they could develop a very efficient red zone offense. As long as Kroft does not have to be the starter, he should be a reliable piece in the tight end core next season.

At the bottom of the depth chart, Uzomah and Schreck are currently both on the roster. However, I’d be surprised to see both of them make the 53 man roster cut. The Bengals made clear that Uzomah is behind Kroft on the depth chart last year, and their stats bear that out. If the Bengals like what Schreck shows them during training camp, Uzomah will likely not make the final roster. However, if Schreck hasn’t developed enough, Uzomah is reliable enough to keep over Schreck. Neither of these tight ends moves the needle for the Bengals, but if they make the final roster cut, they’ll likely see some playing time should Eifert go down again.

Draft prospects

I don’t anticipate the Bengals to target tight end as a primary need in this draft. However, if the Bengals’ front office lacks confidence in Eifert, they need to look at one of the top few tight ends in this draft. After the first 4 or 5 prospects, there is a massive drop off in this class. Top prospects Mike Gesicki from Penn St. and Dallas Goedert from South Dakota St. will likely go before the Bengals even consider drafting a tight end.

However, if the Bengals want to invest one of their third-round picks in one of these top-end tight ends, they should look at Mark Andrews from Oklahoma or Troy Fumagalli from Wisconsin. Andrews is an excellent receiving tight end, much like Eifert. Though he doesn’t have the same kind of frame Eifert does, Andrews is a similar threat as a receiver. His release off the line is elite, and he has a good feel on short and intermediate routes across the middle. Andrews is a very poor blocker, but his ability to stretch the field would make him a decent replacement for Eifert should the Bengals move on.

Next: 2017 Bengals positional review: wide receivers

Fumagalli is a different type of prospect than Andrews. Fumagalli resembles Kroft more so than Eifert in that his game is more well-rounded. Playing at Wisconsin has allowed Fumagalli to gain experience in run blocking schemes. That experience helped develop him an into an above average blocker compared to the other tight end prospects. Fumagalli also has incredibly reliable hands as a short-yardage receiver, making him useful as a third down target. He is by far the poorest athlete of the elite tight ends and doesn’t stretch the field like other prospects, but his skill set is very translatable to the NFL.

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