Well, since I really like to ease into things on a Monday morning, I picked a pretty easy topic to write about. I mean, when discussing the Dallas Cowboys Tight Ends for the past 10 years, there's really only ever been one topic: Jason Witten. If I wanted to just copy and paste his name maybe 400 times and press publish, all of you would likely be pretty content with the article, probably feeling that it just about summarizes the position as a whole for the Cowboys. Or maybe I could just type out a whole boatload of Jason-Witten-as-Chuck-Norris jokes, that would get the job done pretty effectively, right? Over the past 10 season, we've been beyond spoiled to see the work of "The Senator" week in and week out. Even for all of his recognition, he is quite possibly one of the most underrated players to ever play for the Dallas Cowboys. This year, Jason dug deep into the barrel and provided the league with a type of season that has never been recorded by a player of his position. Let's take a brief look at his two understudies and then continue to gush and heap praise upon Mr. Even-Lacerating-My-Internal-Organs-Won't-Slow-Me-Down.
By the end of this season, John Phillips found himself as the 3rd TE on the depth chart. The 6th-rounder from the 2009 Draft (ugh) didn't progress like many had hoped, and may be another one of those players that has played his final game while wearing a star on his helmet. Phillips has always been a decent blocker, and has even been used in spot situations as a fullback. Yet his impact on the passing game has been negligible. Phillips only had 8 catches this past season, and nobody ever accused this offense of not looking toward him enough. He simply hasn't shown enough explosiveness or craftiness (a la #82) to consistently make plays in this league. Maybe Phillips can latch on somewhere else, but look for Dallas to go in another direction this coming season.
The man who unseated Phillips for the 2nd TE position is James Hanna, the 6th round Rookie out of Oklahoma. It took most of the season for Hanna to gain the trust of Romo and Garrett, recording 0 catches between Weeks 2 and 13. And then he caught on. Over the last 4 games he recorded 7 catches for 76 yards, just right for the TE2 in an offense with so many weapons. He possesses great speed and size and is a modern-day-prototype TE in the form of Jimmy Graham and Gronk (but just not quite as Gronky). It'll be interesting to see what type of production he can manufacture in year 2; will he grow into a reliable player or will he fall off the table (see: Martellus Bennett)?
Finally, Jason Witten. Jason Witten, Jason Witten, Jason Witten (okay I'll stop). When the boogeyman goes to sleep at night, he check his closet for Jason Witten. Jason Witten can win a game of Connect 4 in only 3 moves. Dammit I caught myself again. Let's get back to the football. 3 games into the season, we were all very worried about the weary-Witten. He had only recorded 8 catches and was clearly not himself since suffering the lacerated Spleen injury against Oakland in the preseason. And then he got all Witten-y again. He caught 13 balls on 14 attempts against Chicago, and the rest was history. He averaged 7.85 catches per game after those first 3 for a more-than-respectable 74 yards a game. Witten also broke Tony Gonzalez's record for most catches in a season by a Tight End…in Week 16.
Speaking of Gonzo, we can use him as a nice parallel for Mr. Witten. Fans and pundits like to bring up the "When will he start to show his age" question when it comes to Jason. When Tony was in his 10th year and was 30 years old (exactly what Witten comes in at), he had 73 catches for 900 yards, not bad stats at all. This past season, Gonzo's 16th in the league at 36 years old, he was able to rack up 93 catches for 930 yards. The point being that at Tight End, more than most other positions in the NFL, players have had success for much later into their careers. Witten doesn't rely on supreme athletic ability to defeat opponents, he relies on a supreme IQ for the game and an uncanny chemistry with his QB. Both of these factors should allow the future Ring-of-Honoree to continue to dominate defenses into the foreseeable future.
Overall Grade for the Tight Ends: A-
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