When the Cincinnati Bengals drafted tight end Tyler Kroft out of Rutgers University in the third round of the draft last year, it seemed like a luxury selection. After all, the Bengals already had their star tight end in Tyler Eifert, so they certainly weren’t in desperate need at the position.
But just one year later and things have changed.
Unfortunately for the Bengals, Eifert injured his ankle at the end of last season playing in the Pro Bowl back in January. Although it wasn’t supposed to be a serious injury, Eifert has experienced a few setbacks that forced him to have surgery on the injured ankle earlier this summer. And now he is expected to miss the beginning of the Bengals’ season.
Ultimately though, the Bengals could survive a few games without Eifert, but after five months of recovery without significant progress, a bigger question needs to be asked in Cincinnati.
Will Eifert be able to play at 100% at all during the 2016 season?
“The injury I had – more times than not you don’t have surgery,” Eifert said. “I did everything right, followed the protocol, and it just didn’t heal the way it was supposed to. It was something that had to be done.”
In the end I have no doubt that Eifert will return at some point in the 2016 season, but how effective he will be is an entirely different story. More importantly, it will certainly be hard for him to be the same player that broke the Bengals’ franchise record for most single-season touchdowns by a tight end.
So this leaves the Bengals with one option to replace the massive amount of production that they have been accustomed to from the tight end position – Tyler Kroft.
Now as you can imagine, Kroft has come a long way after a rookie season that saw him play sparingly behind Eifert. Most importantly, he finally has a firm grasp of the playbook and should be able to play at a faster level as a result.
“Everything’s a little bit more natural this year,” Kroft said about the transition from his rookie season to this year. “I’m a lot more comfortable with the playbook, especially [compared to] at this point last year to this year, I feel way better.”
It’s definitely a positive sign that Kroft is feeling more comfortable in the offense, but he now has bigger challenges to face. Last season the Bengals allowed Kroft to slowly progress and he was able to take his time and learn.
In 2016 though, he’ll be thrown to the fire.
For Kroft, he suddenly will become one of the most important pieces to the Bengals’ offense when the 2016 season starts. Last season quarterback Andy Dalton’s favorite target in the red zone was Eifert and it resulted in one of the most lethal red zone combinations in the entire league.
The bottom line though is that no one will expect Kroft to replicate Eifert’s 2015 season. He was one of the best tight ends in the league for a reason and you can’t expect a guy with 11 career catches to automatically be a Pro Bowler.
But they’ll at least need him to step up and become an impact person in the passing game from the beginning of the season. With several new receivers on the Bengals’ offense, Kroft will be even more important.
In 2015, the Bengals targeted Eifert on passes 72 times and a great deal of them were in the red zone and during important third-down conversion.
Kroft will now be tasked with the challenge of replacing that production.
And suddenly he is now crucial to the Bengals 2016 season.