When Notre Dame tight end Kyle Rudolph entered the 2011 draft, he was known for being a big-bodied, punishing pass-catcher. He could block well in-line and could catch well in the middle of the field. Now two years later, tight end Tyler Eifert is next in line to be a successful Golden Domer at the position, but he has little in common with Rudolph.
While Rudolph could beat up on wimpy tacklers after the catch, Eifert simply soared over them when going up for the ball this past season. He wasn’t always aggressive in attacking the football, however. He’d settle for trapping it to his body when he wasn’t hit by a defensive back prior to being thrown the ball. When he was hit, he seemed to struggle catching the football at times. As for his blocking, he didn’t appear to have the core strength to hold off powerful rushers and his technique was lacking.
However, Eifert is better at reaching and bringing down the ball when it’s at its peak. It’s why he’s such a tremendous threat downfield. He’s also much more fluid of a route runner, easily getting in and out of his breaks regardless of the route he’s asked to run. He’s much less like Rudolph as one studies him and more like Jimmy Graham, who was drafted in the third round by the New Orleans Saints in 2010 and is practically an oversized and dominant slot receiver. Graham’s had back-to-back seasons of at least 85 receptions and has scored 20 total touchdowns over that span.
That’s how Eifert was used this past season by head coach and offensive whiz Brian Kelly. He was moved all around the formation, spending many snaps lined up on the perimeter or in the slot. He was truly problematic for defensive coordinators because of his towering 6’6″ frame and receiver-like fluidity. When defensive backs thought they had him covered, he’d still be open four feet above their head. And when he operated in the slot, it was laughable watching athletically limited and shorter linebackers attempt to cover him in the seam. That’s a lot like Graham’s professional career thus far.
One route that shined while studying the Notre Dame tight end’s games was a divide route down the seam. It was a simple route that required him to run straight-ahead and simply catch the ball over the heads of defenders. Interestingly enough, it was eerily similar to the 66-yard reception Graham had against the San Francisco 49ers in the playoffs a couple of years ago.
Eifert was flexed from the formation as the lone receiving threat in the short side of the field on the play. Prior to the snap, he had no defender directly across from him; a cornerback (not pictured) was lined up just outside with roughly a seven-yard cushion, while two linebackers were just inside of him. There was also a safety in the middle of the field that ultimately wouldn’t be a factor in the play.
Because Eifert was on the short side of the field, it was difficult for the safety to get over the top of his vertical route without respecting the wide side. However, inside linebacker Will Lucas (No. 45) was a factor, as he was charged with covering the tight end through the seam. That’s a difficult task for Lucas, who is only 5’11″ and more than six inches shorter than the Golden Domer.
That’s why when the ball was thrown, the linebacker had no chance of making a play on the ball. His best bet was to attempt to knock the ball out of Eifert’s hands as he came down or knock him out. Neither worked, as the tight end climbed over Lucas and caught the football.
Eifert’s combination of size, length, and fluidity is ultimately why he’s being strongly considered as a first-round selection in April. The combination is sometimes reminiscent of Graham, who is also more of a big wide receiver than a traditional “Y” tight end.
Going into the pros, Eifert needs to become stronger and consistently aggressive while attacking the football. He also needs to improve as a blocker if he’s going to be used as a in-line tight end.
Right now that seems unlikely. At the very least, he’ll be a great matchup advantage for his team from the slot, where he’ll be able to attack the middle of the field and snatch passes away from short defenders.