Updated: 4-26-13, 12:15 a.m.
After an offseason the Bengals kept the NFL's sixth-best defense intact, their first blow in the NFL Draft Thursday night secured a playmaker for an offense that didn't score a touchdown in its playoff loss in Houston.
For the second time in four years the Bengals plucked the best tight end off the board at No. 21 in Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert and plan to team him with two-time Pro Bowl tight end Jermaine Gresham in double tight-end sets that they hope terrorize defenses with explosive versatility and takes heat off quarterback Andy Dalton and two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green.
"He's a guy that we felt that we would hopefully be considering — one of the guys we'd have an opportunity to be considering," said head coach Marvin Lewis.
The 6-5, 250-pound Eifert can help transform the Bengals offense from a Green-centric set into a more varied array that potentially mismatches defenses into confusion. Even though there was no announcement in the Andre Smith stalemate, the Eifert pick lightened the mood on offense.
"It's an exciting time for the offense," said offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. "I'm sure Andy is happy. Make Andy happy."
The Bengals weren't supposed to get that offensive firepower for Dalton-Green until they started hunting for a running back in Friday night's second round, but Eifert slipped past the top 20 in a bit of a surprise. They found themselves looking at two slides in Eifert and Florida defensive tackle Shariff Floyd, but it appeared they quickly went with their highest-rated player.
A safety would have been nice, but the 49ers jumped up in a trade with the Cowboys at No. 18 with some of their 2,000 picks to take LSU's Eric Reid. The Bengals had their shot at Alabama running back Eddie Lacy, but they opted for Eifert's 6-6, 255-pound athleticism and jump-ball ability that comes from a 35-inch vertical leap that netted him 113 catches for a 13.2-yard average over the past two seasons that included nine touchdowns.
"It's a great deal; it's an interesting deal," Gruden said. "The thing about it is if we throw the ball effectively out of it and they want to put an extra (defensive back) in there, we can run the ball because we've got (bigger) people in there."
The Bengals very well could get one of those guys to run the ball with their next pick, which is early Friday, thanks to the Carson Palmer trade. The Bengals pick fifth and for the first time in 50 years all running backs are available at the start of the second round.
But they added to their offensive arsenal earlier than expected. Eifert, who eschewed the New York City spotlight to stay at his Fort Wayne, Ind., home with family and friends, admitted he was a bit surprised to go to a team that had a two-time Pro Bowl tight end.
"We do our little mock drafts in our head," Eifert said. "Who needs the position we are. I was a bit surprised, but (tight ends) Coach (Jon) Hayes worked me out at the combine and my pro day and we have a good relationship.
"I think (Gresham and I) are very similar players. Cause mismatches and get down the field, but we also put our hand in the dirt and block. I'm excited to have the opportunity to play next to him."
And that's the plan. Although Gresham has struggled at times and had a terrible game in the playoff loss, he's still viewed at Paul Brown Stadium as a legit NFL playmaker and is the starter while Eifert is a backup with veteran Alex Smith figuring to have the edge as the No. 3 tight end. That could mean last year's backup tight end, Orson Charles, a fourth-rounder last April, is ticketed to some type of H-Back if the Bengals opt not to carry a fullback.
What makes the Bengals extremely happy is they're getting a bright guy that played every imaginable position last year for head coach Brian Kelly's dizzying uptempo offense.
"I lined up at every single position except quarterback," Eifert said of the skill spots. "I was never in the backfield, but I was where our running back would be the way our personnel would be. I was the running back, the Y, the X, the Z the W."
But Gruden is hesitant to say he's going to turn Cincinnati into Foxboro South with his version of New England's tight end tandem of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. He's not going to eliminate the three-receiver set. When he goes two tights, that means slot receivers Andrew Hawkins and Mohamed Sanu aren't on the field, although Gruden did indicate Green and Sanu are his two starting receivers.
"There's different ways to attack. You know, Green Bay doesn't use two tight ends, (the) New Orleans Saints don't do it a lot, so there's a lot of teams that are successful without the two tight end attack," Gruden said. "But that attack with A.J. and Mohammed Sanu can be very effective. Like I said, it keeps the base personnel on the field and you can create matchups favorably if you use it properly. Hopefully, we'll get that done offensively and get him out there on the field as soon as possible. But still, you can't discount the fact we have (wide receivers)
and Sanu. And we'll bring him along gradually and if he picks it up, we'll use him as best we can."
On a draft board stocked with solid players but lacking game-changers, Eifert is seen as one of the safer picks, along with the top three offensive tackles. The Bengals think he's the kind of guy that can step in and make 60 or so catches and whlle Gresham is still the better blocker, the draftnicks think Eifert can put more weight on his 250-pound frame and is athletic enough to grow into a better blocker.
"(Eifert) should make an immediate impact on the next level, where his prototypical dimensions, athletic movement, and elite ball skills will enable him to become one of the most productive tight ends in the league," Pro Football Weekly said in its draft preview.
"Tracks throws and displays terrific body control and hand-eye coordination. Threatens the seam and factors in the red zone. … Showed marked improvement as an in-line blocker as a junior."