by Matt Waldman
One of the fascinating aspects of football is that teams can win games with both versatility and specialization of their personnel. At this point of the game's evolution, versatility is in vogue. Few other positions epitomize the concept better than tight end.
Kyle Rudolph, John Carlson, and Anthony Fasano have never been in my kitchen. The other thing they have in common: they are tight ends from Notre Dame selected in the second round of the NFL draft. While Rudolph was the only one of the trio who possesses enough athleticism to display similar versatility in the pro game as he did in South Bend, all three tight ends are good receivers with skill at the line of scrimmage as run and pass blockers. I believe Tyler Eifert will be the fourth Fighting Irish tight end to join that club.
A fluid athlete with promising all-around skills at the position, the 6-foot-6, 245-pound Eifert will appeal to many NFL teams. Thus far, the athleticism I’ve seen from Eifert is on a continuum where if he manages to reach his greatest potential, his physical talent and skills could fall within the range of Rudolph. Texans tight ends Owen Daniels and Garrett Graham are at the middle and lower end of the same spectrum of player style depending on Eifert’s eventual NFL weight. Regardless, all three NFL tight ends are all-around players capable of high-end production in a variety of areas. However, none of them are instant mismatches for every defender.
I have more to watch of Eifert’s game before I can provide a substantial opinion on his athletic potential, but at this point I can say that if Florida Gators junior Jordan Reed declares at season's end, Eifert is not the best ball carrier of this class. But that's just one of many aspects of the position, and watching Eifert’s 2011 performance against the Michigan Wolverines demonstrates why he’s likely the top tight end on most boards in 2013. As was the case with recent Notre Dame alums at the position, Eifert’s calling card is versatility.
The first three offensive plays for the Fighting Irish feature Eifert in three different spots. On the opening play, Eifert is split wide right in a four-receiver set.
On the next play, he is used as an inline tight end from 11 personnel with receivers 1x2 on a running play.
The following play, Eifert is inline as part of an unbalanced set in 12 personnel.
Eifert is also used in the slot or on the wing. The variety of ways Notre Dame uses the senior indicates that he has not only size, quickness, strength, but also skill as a route runner, pass catcher, and run and pass blocker. Eifert can help this offense maintain enough variety with its offensive looks to gain schematic matchup advantages against almost any defense. How well this works all lies in the execution of these schemes.
Depending on what else I see in the coming months, Eifert may or may not be a future star. But what stands out about him is that he has few weaknesses anywhere Notre Dame uses him on the field. This may change in the NFL as the gap in athleticism from athlete to athlete declines, but the tight end displays a lot of promise.
This third offensive play from this unbalanced set in 12 personnel is a good starting point. If a tight end is to play at the line of scrimmage in an NFL offense, he’ll need to demonstrate skill releasing from the line and managing contact to maintain the timing of his route with the quarterback. This second-and-5 with 11:41 is a good illustration of what Eifert will encounter post-snap from linebackers and defensive ends. As the tight end releases outside the defensive end, the outside linebacker delivers a punch to Eifert’s outside shoulder.
The casual viewer might contend that Eifert needs to turn his outside shoulder away from the oncoming punch from the linebacker, but this would not be a realistic criticism of the receiver on this play because the defensive end is releasing outside and forcing Eifert to step in the direction of the linebacker rather than straight up the field. This makes the idea of reducing the shoulder inward while stepping outside a bad idea because it will force the receiver to give up his balance. Eifert makes the correct move by working outside and expecting the potential for contact from the linebacker.
The shove from the linebacker knocks Eifert off balance during his release, but the tight end’s initial release and use of his outside arm to work through the contact helps him maintain enough control to stay upright. He works behind the middle linebacker while crossing behind the first-down marker towards the left hash. Although the quarterback targets another receiver on the play, Eifert would still be open by NFL standards.
Here’s an even better release from a technique standpoint with 10:39 in the game from an 11-personnel shotgun on a first-and-10 crossing route.
Eifert faces the left defensive end over top and two linebackers playing tight to the middle. If the tight end tried to release outside the defensive end, there are two things that could go wrong and disrupt the timing of the route.
The first is the extra steps it will take to get around the defensive end while opening his body to a hit that could knock him off balance and destroy the route timing. If he manages to clear the defensive end without issue, then the second problem is the impact of this wide release on the path that he has to take towards the linebackers in the middle of the field.
With this drop step to the outside, Eifert releases inside and turns his outside shoulder just enough to the inside that he reduces the surface area of the target that the defensive end wants to hit when jamming the receiver. If Eifert were to release too high, the defender could have gotten his hands into the tight end’s pads and delayed the release long enough that the tight end would be late to his spot. Reducing the shoulder early in a release, whether playing at the line or on an island on the perimeter, is something I watch receivers coaches harp on at practice daily. Frequent corrections are issued to prospects every year on it -- even at the Senior Bowl.
As the linebacker gives chase to Eifert in the flat, the tight end gets his shoulders square to the quarterback, catches the ball with his hands away from his body about three yards past the line of scrimmage, and turns up the right flat for another two just as the trailing defender recovers to wrap the receiver’s legs and take Eifert to the turf.
Here’s a nice example of a good route to get behind a linebacker on a third-and-15 pass for a 22-yard play with 8:49 left in the game. Eifert begins the play in the left slot and runs an intermediate cross. His job will be to work behind the linebacker playing to his inside.
Eifert understands on this route that he has to force the defender to be a step behind his intentions, which means getting the defender to think the break will be outside rather than inside. One of the best ways to do this on a cross is to release at an angle just enough to the inside that it forces the defender inside a step, because once Eifert makes a dip outside, the defender is more apt to react as if this outside move is an outside break. So the defender will accelerate in that direction, while Eifert actually makes his break back to the inside.
Although Eifert is not in this screenshot, the release described in the prior frame forces the linebacker to turn his hips outside. That’s the only advantage the receiver needs on a route where the separation he needs to achieve is minimal. Forcing the defender to turn his body outside also prevents the defender from reading the quarterback’s release, meaning he can only play the man and not the ball. This is a good example of why precision is so important in route running.
The ball arrives just half a step ahead of the linebacker, but the prior frame demonstrates how wide of a throwing lane there was for the quarterback to make an accurate throw. This move gave the quarterback time to throw the ball with anticipation and get it behind the linebacker before he even crosses into the area. If we were viewing this play from a sideline angle, it would look like Eifert created more separation -- but that’s why the end zone view can often reveal how important anticipation and timing is to the success of a play.
When a tight end can extend his body laterally for the football and leave his feet to do so, it’s a good sign that he has the athleticism NFL teams seek from a pass-catcher. Here is the tail end of a crossing route on second-and-1 with 3:50 in the first quarter where Eifert must extend his body for the pass.
Eifert does a good job of getting his arms extended and his hands in position to snare the pass while nearly parallel with the turf. He finishes the play retracting his arms to get the ball into his chest, so the first body part that hits the ground is his hips rather than his arms, keeping the ball secure. This play results in a 12-yard gain.
Here’s a poorly-executed play, due in part to pressure, that results in an incomplete pass with 1:54 in the half. Despite the result, Eifert’s ball tracking, concentration, and athleticism are still on display.
The Notre Dame tight end works from the slot up to the flat and turns to look to the quarterback over his right shoulder. This should tell you that Eifert is expecting the ball on a seam over his inside shoulder and under the defensive back playing over top.
However, the quarterback throws the ball over the receiver’s outside shoulder, forcing the tight end to make a quick adjustment to the outside. Eifert turns his head, so he’ll have to take his eyes off the ball and then make an even quicker adjustment to locate its arrival.
Eifert locates the ball, extends his arms, and leans over the boundary. Although he doesn’t keep his feet inbounds to earn an official reception of a pass that was thrown well out of bounds, the Notre Dame tight end still manages to make the catch, maintain possession when he reaches the ground, and rolls into the bass drum well past the sideline.
When Eifert gets off the line with a good jump and his pads low, he’s a good run blocker. Here’s a play where he collapses the defensive end to the inside on a play where the running back cuts back through the hole that Eifert generates.
Note the angle of Eifert’s back below this blue line. He’s in position to drive the defender into the pile, which is exactly what he does, opening the outside for the pulling guard to lead the runner on power for five yards.
Here’s a cut block on second-and-goal in the left flat with 9:57 in the first quarter. Eifert is the left slot receiver in a 2x2, 10-personnel shotgun set.
He releases down field as if he is running a short route, but targets the safety playing man. He does a great job of waiting as long as possible to attempt the cut, making sure he doesn’t telegraph his intentions.
Once he reaches the defender, who takes an outside angle towards the runner, Eifert turns and cuts across the body of the defender. The block forces the defender to the ground and gives the runner another five yards on the play.
There’s a lot to like about a tight end capable of executing assignments from a variety of spots on the field, and Eifert demonstrates enough of that skill at the college level to project him as an effective blocker in the pros with additional work. He can meet an opponent of defensive-end proportions with a punch, attain hand placement inside the defender’s pads, and turn the man away from the ball carrier while maintaining a solid anchor with his lower body. When he faces a linebacker within his weight range, he has the strength to drive forward and pancake a defender. He also demonstrates a high motor to continue to work for good position and delivers multiple punches to get his hands into position to control his opponent.
One of the things he’ll need to get better at is his release at the snap. When Eifert is first off the line, his pads are generally low and he usually wins his assignment. However, he can fire off a step slow and too high as a run blocker. While he’s quick enough to sometimes get away with this poor timing in the college game, it won’t work in the NFL. Eifert also needs to develop more consistency with his hand placement so he can win battles at the line of scrimmage early in the snap. When it comes to anchoring defenders, it will benefit him to add 10-to-15 pounds of weight to his core, which will not only improve his functional strength but increase his initial explosion. Until he does so, he’s most effective against larger opponents as a part of a double team.
If Eifert truly measures at 6-foot-6 and gains the 10-to-15 pounds to reach 255-to-260 pounds. he’ll be a good option in a power run game, like Rudolph is today. If he cannot add this muscle and plays at a weight below 250 pounds, he’ll offer more to an offense that uses a tight end like an H-Back that they move around as a wing player, fullback, slot receiver, and second inline tight end. I think Eifert’s talents make him a good match for teams like the Browns, Seahawks, Rams, Falcons, and Bears. I’m not convinced he’s a first-round talent, but I’d be surprised if he falls below the third round, a place where a lot of players with first-round grades are still available.