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Last updated: Fri. Dec. 06, 2013 - 02:48 am EDT

COLUMN

Notre Dame product's rookie NFL season shows big promise

Fort Wayne native Eifert faces Colts on Sunday

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Eifert's efforts

Tyler Eifert's single-game bests this season:

Catches: 5 (vs. Bears, Patriots)

Yards: 66 (vs. Steelers)

Touchdowns: 1 (vs. Lions)

For more on the NFL, follow Reggie Hayes via Twitter at www.twitter.com/reggiehayes1

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Let's attempt to put Tyler Eifert's rookie season into perspective, starting with stats.

Eifert, the former Bishop Dwenger High School and Notre Dame tight end, has 32 catches for 386 yards and one touchdown as he and his Cincinnati Bengals prepare for Sunday's home game against the Indianapolis Colts.

Those numbers are modest compared with the top two tight ends in the league. New Orleans' Jimmy Graham has 68 catches for 988 yards and 12 touchdowns, and San Diego's Antonio Gates has 64 catches and three scores. There are even two other rookie tight ends, Washington's Jordan Reed (45 catches, 499 yards) and Tampa Bay's Timothy Wright (36 catches, 383 yards), with more catches.

There's a big qualifier for Eifert, however, and that's the fact he's sharing the tight-end receiving load with fourth-year player Jermaine Gresham (35 catches, 348 yards). The Bengals also have a couple of pretty good wide receivers, led by A.J. Green.

“We just don't have enough footballs to make everybody pleased and happy all the time, but our offensive style is different than most,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. “(The tight ends) are not going to get as many opportunities as you look on 'SportsCenter' all the time. We're just different than that. We have some good outside receivers that we get the ball vertically in those situations.”

So it's unfair to compare Eifert's numbers with featured tight ends like Graham or Gates.

A better comparison – both more telling and more encouraging to Eifert fans – would be to look at Eifert's numbers through the prism of five quality tight ends in their rookie seasons.

The five: Graham, Gates, Tony Gonzalez, Vernon Davis and Dallas Clark.

I picked the first four because most would name them as tight end stars at or relatively near their prime. I picked Clark because former Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian is on record saying Eifert is very reminiscent of prime Clark in his versatility.

The findings are favorable to Eifert.

* Number of catches in their rookie season: Gonzalez 33, Graham 31, Clark 29, Gates 24 and Davis 20.

* Yards receiving in their rookie season: Gates 389, Gonzalez 368, Graham 356, Clark 340 and Davis 265.

In other words, Eifert needs two more catches and 4 more yards to have had a better statistical rookie season than any of those five. Obviously, there are numerous factors behind all numbers, but the fact Eifert's first season – and he has four games left – ranks so favorably with those tight ends bodes well for his future.

Eifert's numbers would likely be much higher without Gresham around, since Gresham tends to be on the field with the three-receiver set.

One of Eifert's question marks coming into the league was his blocking, but he has proved capable of holding his own.

“Tyler has done a really good job of really learning and developing as an NFL tight end,” Lewis said. “He's a part of our offense in the blocking, he's part as a receiver. He continues to excel at this.”

One of the factors that Eifert – and all receivers and tight ends – can't control is the quarterback. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has shown flashes of brilliance and stretches of struggles. Dalton ranks ninth in passing yardage, but 26th in completion percentage.

The five tight ends I cited had a mixed bag at quarterback throwing them the ball: Gates and Graham both had Drew Brees; Clark had Peyton Manning; Davis had Alex Smith, Trent Dilfer and Shaun Hill; and Gonzalez had Elvis Grbac and Rich Gannon.

Incidentally, when Gonzalez entered the league, John Elway and Dan Marino were still playing, so how amazing is it that Gonzalez remains productive (62 catches, 653 yards) 17 years later?

The key for Eifert remains how he produces moving forward. He's a motivated worker. He always has been. He'll become even more familiar with the Bengals' offense under coordinator Jay Gruden and his rapport with Dalton is bound to grow.

Gates jumped from 24 catches his first season to 81, Gonzalez increased from 33 to 59 and Graham went from 31 to 99.

We have to be careful in how we judge Eifert in his first season because of so many extenuating factors.

But this much is clear: He's off to a good start, still with the possibility of greatness ahead.

rhayes@news-sentinel.com


This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.


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