To say the Cincinnati Bengals haven’t had the best of luck this offseason would be putting it mildly.
Since camp began, promising rookies William Jackson III and Andrew Billings both suffered injuries that could cost them their first pro seasons. But neither young man was the first chip to fall.
That dubious distinction goes to Cincinnati tight end, Tyler Eifert.
Eifert had a remarkable 2015, hauling in 13 touchdowns and showing why the Bengals made him a first-round selection back in 2013. For his efforts, Eifert earned the first Pro Bowl nod of his career.
Unfortunately, he accepted.
Many people rightly see the Pro Bowl as a glorified scrimmage. It’s a chance for the NFL to showcase its best and brightest stars, but also, since it’s a game of no major consequence, it’s a game players typically play at half speed. But Eifert found out the hard way that the risk of injury is ever-present.
Eifert injured his left ankle in the Pro Bowl and, though the injury was once thought to be minor, it lingered and eventually required surgery. It was uncertain for a while just when the star tight end would return, but recent reports have him shooting for sometime between Week 4 and Week 6. That’s a good chunk of the season to be without such a major contributor.
Enter Tyler Kroft.
Kroft didn’t play much early in ’15, but a different injury to Eifert forced the then-rookie into the lineup late in the year. Kroft started slow, but picked up some speed as he gained experience. In his best three-game stretch, the Rutgers product totaled nine receptions, 108 yards and a touchdown.
Now it’s a question of whether or not he can produce at that level on a consistent basis.
From a physical standpoint, there’s no question that Kroft has the tools to be an impact player. His combine numbers were above average across the board. In fact, his NFL.com Draft Profile likens him to Kansas City standout Travis Kelce. Given that Kelce himself has earned the nickname, “Baby Gronk,” that’s not bad company to be held within.
But the Bengals didn’t make Kroft a third-round draft selection exclusively for his physical attributes. As a sophomore, the tight end was mighty productive — tallying 43 receptions, 573 yards and four scores. Kroft’s next season wasn’t as strong from a statistical standpoint (24 receptions, 269 yards), but that was mostly by design. Rutgers relied on his strong blocking ability to help matriculate the ball downfield.
Of course, as has been the case for so many in Cincinnati, there are some health concerns for Kroft at present. He sprained a knee near the beginning of this month and, as a result, faces a 4-6 week recovery time. That should leave his availability in question right up until the start of the regular season. But, given that he’ll be right around the six-week mark once the season begins, he’s a solid bet to be ready for Cincinnati’s opener.
The measurables and production speak for themselves, but an even more illuminating stance on Kroft came from one of his quarterbacks, AJ McCarron.
Per ESPN’s Cole Harvey: “It’s like a baby (Eifert) 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 (Eifert), it is. But (Kroft) is definitely the guy that you want there.”
Of course, most of Kroft’s playing experience came with McCarron at the helm last season. This year, he’ll be catching passes from a veteran signal-caller in Andy Dalton. The two might need some time to establish chemistry, but having a better quarterback under center should help accelerate Kroft’s growth.
Kroft doesn’t need to play at an Eifert-esque level to make an impact for Cincinnati. In fact, it’s unreasonable to expect him to. But he’s more than talented enough to serve as a viable starter for the first quarter or so of Cincinnati’s season.