- Jamison Hensley, ESPN Staff Writer
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When the Bengals selected Eifert with the No. 21 overall pick, it was the most unexpected first-round choice in the AFC North. Over two weeks removed from the draft, this makes perfect sense for Cincinnati and serves as yet another reason how the Bengals have turned the corner as a franchise.
In the past, the Bengals would've reached based on need. These days, the decision is based on what player makes the Bengals better. And Eifert undoubtedly makes the Bengals better in every critical phase on offense even though they used a first-round pick on Jermaine Gresham three years ago.
The Bengals' biggest need is strong safety, and no one would've criticized them taking Florida International's Johnathan Cyprien or Florida's Matt Elam. But adding a defensive back doesn't put the Bengals in the best position to take the next step. Adding another big playmaker for quarterback Andy Dalton does. This is an offense that has ranked 20th or lower for five straight seasons and has come up short at the worst possible times.
The Bengals have failed to advance in the playoffs because of the offense. In two postseason games, the Cincinnati offense has produced 16 points and one touchdown. Whether Eifert is the final piece to the Bengals winning their first postseason game in 23 seasons is unknown. He certainly gets them much closer to achieving it.
Here are the areas where the Bengals need Eifert the most:
Red zone: Picture the 6-foot-5 Eifert splitting to the outside and catching a touchdown on a fade route. Life should get a lot easier for Dalton and the Bengals inside the 20-yard line this year. The Bengals finished 16th in the NFL in red zone efficiency last season, scoring 31 touchdowns on 57 red zone trips.
Producing at a 54.4 percent clip isn't disastrous until you take a closer look at how Cincinnati finished. In December, Bengals reached the end zone on seven of 17 possessions inside the 20-yard line (41 percent) and Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green recorded one touchdown catch. In two playoff games, the Bengals have scored touchdowns on just one-quarter of their red zone trips. That's not getting any team to the Super Bowl, much less past the wild-card round.
Third downs: Where the Bengals have struggled the most is on third downs. Cincinnati ranked 27th in converting third downs last season at 34 percent. To put it in perspective, the only teams worse than the Bengals in this category were four last-place teams (Chiefs, Browns, Jaguars and Cardinals) and a team with a losing record (Rams). Dalton was particularly poor on third downs, completing 47.5 of his passes (worst among quarterbacks with at least 350 pass attempts) and throwing seven interceptions (tied for third-most on third downs).
Eifert came up big on third downs during his time at Notre Dame. In the last two seasons, he caught 36 passes on third downs and converted 31 of them into first downs. His 13 receptions on third down last season was tied for eighth among college tight ends, according to ESPN Stats & Information. What makes Eifert so valuable in these situations is the trust factor. Dalton can look to Eifert in pressure moments because he has dependable hands and can make tough catches while getting hit. The same can't be said of Gresham, whose mental lapses and drops have hurt Cincinnati.
Big plays: The Bengals weren't able to consistently stretch the field as much as they wanted. Dalton's 37 completions over 20 yards ranked 24th in the NFL. Green accounted for 16 of those, and no one else on the team had more than eight. Delivering catches deep downfield may end up being Eifert's biggest impact as a rookie.
Over the past three seasons in college, Eifert has produced 29 catches over 20 yards. Last season, his seven receptions over 25 yards was tied for seventh in the FBS. What makes Eifert a good fit for the Bengals is his athleticism. He has a 35-inch vertical and will outleap defenders to make those jump ball catches. This is important in the Bengals deep passing game because Dalton doesn't have elite arm strength.
Eifert, who is wearing No. 85, is the Bengals' new Ocho Cinco, albeit without the theatrics, and represents the wave of new-school tight ends. He can be the next Jimmy Graham or Aaron Hernandez. He can be what the Bengals envisioned with Gresham. Cincinnati will line him up all over the field and create mismatch problems.
Eifert can be a big target for Dalton. He can take pressure off Green. He can be what the Bengals desperately need -- another game-changer.