FanPost

Time to Start Grooming Witten's Replacement? A look at Ladarius Green and James Hanna


The better teams in the NFL understand that it's better to get rid of a guy a year too soon than a year to late. While Jason Witten still has years of greatness left in him the fact remains that he will cross over into being old by NFL standards in a couple of months. He'll turn 30. Thirty is not as ominous for a tight end as it is for a running back or a corner but Witten will be an old 30. He's been in the league since he was 21 (9 years) and has played in all 144 games except for one in that span. When you play in 139 straight games, practices in between, you've played through injuries.

Last season, even though he played in every game and had his starting quarterback for the entire season, Witten registered his lowest catch total since 2006. The Cowboys can't afford to ignore an aging position like they did with the offensive line over the past few seasons and expect to fix it all in one offseason. Good teams make smooth transitions from older veterans to younger talent without missing a beat, but you can't depart from a guy until you have a developed replacement. Athletic tight ends are the way of the future in the NFL.

This year's draft features a couple of outstanding mid-round talents that could really learn a thing or two behind Witten. There's a very good chance that John Phillips has already peaked out as a solid H-back. (like other guys who were supposed to be studs like Kevin Ogletree, Victor Butler, Felix Jones, Tashard Choice, etc.).

Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham had more productive seasons in their second year than Jason Witten has ever had in his career. That's not a stab at Witten but a testament to how the game is changing. Each had more yards and touchdowns than Witten has ever had and Graham had more catches. With these 6'6" speedy, strong tight ends, both Tom Brady and Drew Brees blew right by Dan Marino's record for passing yards in a season. It's a copy-cat league. Like the wild cat in 2008, teams are looking to copy the success of teams like the Pats, Saints, and Niners that made deep playoff runs with this new breed of tight end. The Cowboys tried to jump on this bandwagon back in 2008 with the pick of Martellus Bennett, but he was a rare kind of idiot.

Take a look at how the tight end position exploded from Jason Witten's rookie year to this past season.

Year

Jason Witten

Yards

Catches

TDs

League Leading TE

Yards

Catches

TDs

2003

1st year

347

35

1

Tony Gonzalez

916

71

10

2004

2nd year

980

87

6

Tony Gonzalez

1258

102

7

2005

3rd year

757

66

6

Antonio Gates

1101

89

10

2006

4th year

754

64

1

Antonio Gates

924

71

9

2007

5th year

1145

96

7

Tony Gonzalez

1172

99

5

2008

6th year

952

81

4

Tony Gonzalez

1058

96

10

2009

7th year

1030

94

2

Antonio Gates

1157

79

8

2010

8th year

1002

94

9

Jason Witten

1002

94

9

2011

9th year

942

79

5

Rob Gronkowski

1327

90

17

The difference from the best tight end in 2003 to the best tight end in 2011 is astounding. The 2011 tight end has 411 more yards, 19 more catches and 7 more touchdowns.

There are two tight ends that will be selected in the middle rounds that I really like for completely shallow reasons. They are both big and run fast. Ladarius Green and James Hanna both have tremendous upside. Neither one of them is very polished, AT ALL, and I recognize that but that doesn't really matter. You see, Jason Witten never gets hurt and John Phillips can be a solid number two for a while. The whole idea behind bringing in raw talent at the tight end position right now, rather than when Witten is already ineffective is so that they can learn behind Witten and pick-up on the subtle nuances of his game.

Witten is on a front-loaded contract so it will be relatively easy to keep him around to teach a younger guy. No one is looking for two number one tight ends to play alongside each other right now. That idea has worked well in New England but the Cowboys had no success with it back in 2009. It's worth spending a mid-round pick on a developmental tight end when you've been throwing away mid round picks for years on memorable players such as Josh Thomas (round 5), Akwasi Owusu-Ansah (4), Jason Williams and Robert Brewster (3), Brandon Williams (4), Deangelo Smith (5), and Mike Hamlin (5). You can get really good players in round three, like Jason Witten, and the picks shouldn't be wasted.

Ladarius Green, TE, Louisiana-Lafayette
Height: 6-6. Weight: 237
40 Time: 4.53. 10-Yd Split: 1.58
Bench: 16. Vertical: 34.5
Arm: 34 1/2. Hand: 10 1/8
Projected Round (2012): 3-4

This is a highlight video I made of him. My old Youtube account as deleted so I made this video to where you can't search for it, so it wouldn't get reported.

I love guys who are incredibly talented, who have a lot of production, on bad teams. Green is that player. He moves fluidly and is an athletic freak. In his four year college career he had 149 catches for 2201 yards and 22 touchdowns. He was a redzone beast despite being surrounded by crap. His size and build is similar to bigger wide receivers like Calvin Johnson or Plaxico Burress. I like that he is able to work downfield and up the seams because Witten and Phillips don't really provide that option. Marty B didn't really either. Neither Witten nor Phillips is much of a redzone guy unless they catch it at the three and take it in from there. This guy can do work in the end zone and that's something that will be missed in Laurent Robinson. He's a raw talent with huge upside. His solid senior bowl and combine could lift him as high as early third.

James Hanna, TE, Oklahoma
Height: 6-4. Weight: 252.
40 Time: 4.49. 10-Yd Split: 1.59.
Bench: 24. Vertical: 36.
Arm: 33 1/8. Hand: 9 7/8.
Projected Round (2012): 4-6.

I made these highlights too. You won't find any other highlights from him.

Alright, so Hanna ran the fastest forty at the combine. His size isn't as good as Green's but it's still pretty good. I won't lie; Hanna was not a very productive college player. He only had 52 catches for 720 yards and 9 touchdowns over four seasons with the Sooners. The only really impressive thing about him statistically is that in 2010 he only had 18 catches but 7 were for touchdowns. That's an impressive ratio. He played behind 2010 first round pick Jermaine Gresham but played a bigger role when he left. Hanna is fast and strong but he isn't a developed receiver or blocker. He'll go later in the draft than Green and he could fall all the way to round 7 with the amount of tight ends in this year's draft. I think that's a steal for a raw, talented dude to learn from the most technically sound tight end in football.

John Garrett has a track record of developing tight ends into good blockers. The addition of offensive line/ offensive coordinator Bill Callahan can't hurt either. Witten is a team first guy who wouldn't mind coaching up young fellows. Good teams pick unpolished guys in the middle rounds and develop them. If you can only work with first round picks it would take about 53 years to put a good team together. I think it's time to begin developing a guy behind Witten. What do you think? This is my first fan post so leave your feedback.

Another user-created commentary provided by a BTB reader.

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