As we move into the top five of our Tight End Confidential series, we find “America’s Team”, the Dallas Cowboys.
The Cowboys have a long history of success from the tight end position. Mike Ditka, Billy Joe Dupree, Doug Cosbie, and Jay Novacek, all had outstanding times with the star on their helmet. But when it’s all said and done, the greatest tight end in Cowboys history will be former University of Tennessee standout, Jason Witten. The 34-year-old Witten is entering his 14th season in Dallas and shows no signs of stopping. He has been the most durable tight end in the league as he has started all but two games in the past 12 seasons.
It’s not like Witten’s production has waned! He has obviously slowed a bit over the years, but his style of play as a physical pass receiver, who is an effective run blocker, has allowed him to stay on the field regardless of the down and formation. He is valuable inline but also a match-up problem in the slot and split out wide; and the Cowboys utilize all of his talents. Last season he started another 16 games, had over 70 receptions and 700 yards despite dealing with multiple subpar quarterbacks after losing Tony Romo to injury. He will be counted on once again this season to be that dangerous threat in the middle, and with a healthy Romo, he could see his numbers increase.
Behind Witten are two highly capable backups who are poised to take over for Witten when the time finally comes for him to call it a career. James Hanna is the first in line and established number two guy. The 26-year-old veteran from Oklahoma has been groomed under Witten for four seasons and is used in their two tight end packages. Hanna has good versatility, but obviously with Witten as the primary target, he has been relegated to a limited amount of targets. He still holds major value for the Cowboys and could see that value increase if they try to save Witten for a post-season run.
The other tight end is Gavin Escobar. He’s another Cowboys draft pick who they have high hopes for, but has been limited because of Witten’s sustained excellence. Escobar has a similar build to Witten and many believe that he may eventually be the heir to the position. For now, he helps give the Cowboys one of the most complete tight end corps in the NFL.
The last guy in the Cowboys tight end unit is Rico Gathers. He was a basketball player at Baylor this past season and the Cowboys took him with a sixth round pick. At 6’6” and 274 pounds, Gathers will immediately be the most physically imposing and gifted end on the team. Unfortunately, he will also be the most inexperienced tight end in the NFL. Gathers did not play football in high school or college so to think that he will be able to have an immediate impact, like some of the other basketball converts, might be a stretch. But if he is truly committed to being an NFL tight end, then he could not be in a better place to develop. Look for this to be a redshirt season for him with valuable experience being gained during preseason and on the practice squad. 2017 might be a time for him to step into a contributing role but he will be intriguing to watch in training camp this season.