Back at the 2012 NFL Combine, Oklahoma tight end James Hanna delivered an eye-raising performance in his individual drills. Hanna was the top performer at his position in the 40 yard dash (4.49), three-cone drill (6.76), 20 yard shuttle (4.11) and 60 yard shuttle (11.43). He also recorded a 36 inch vertical jump, which is a very good number for any athlete at the combine.
Even with a great combine performance, Hanna fell all the way to the sixth round where he went 186th overall to the Dallas Cowboys. With Martellus Bennett leaving for New York, it appeared that the Cowboys had another dynamic athlete at tight end who could replace Bennett in the passing game.
For whatever reason, the Cowboys didn't really use Hanna too much during his rookie season. Over the years, we've seen this team be reluctant to implement rookies into their system right away. Outside of Tyron Smith and Morris Claiborne, the Cowboys have played a patient role with their rookie players.
Usually I wouldn't have a problem with slowly bringing along a young player who needs to learn a new system, but the Cowboys really don't have the luxury to wait around and have players who can impact a game standing on the sideline.
Who is to blame for Hanna's sideline presence? Is it John Garrett who was recently forced out of Dallas? Outside of Jason Witten, the Cowboys have not received a lot of production from their tight ends. If you remember watching Hard Knocks back in 2008, John Garrett was hesitant about Bennett from the beginning of his career. He knew Bennett was going to be a handful, but he did point out that the rookie tight end had amazing athletic ability.
We shouldn't compare Bennett to Hanna, but it's clear that Jerry Jones did not like what he saw from his tight ends coach over the years and that forced him to run Garrett out of town. Whoever takes over as the next tight ends coach will be inheriting a young and talented player in Hanna, but they must figure out a way to get Hanna more involved in the offense.
It's easy to blame John Garrett, but it's also pretty easy to point the finger his brother Jason Garrett. John Phillips played 302 snaps, while Hanna played only 109 snaps. Garrett is in charge of the Cowboys' offense and he likes to run the two-tight end set, but he probably trusted Phillips more because of his experience and blocking skills.
Phillips is set to be a free agent this offseason, and unless he is willing to take a low-level contract, then he probably won't be back in Dallas. This opens up the door for Hanna to become a bigger part of the Cowboys' offense in 2013.
I know the Cowboys want him to become a better blocker, but at the end of the day he is a receiving threat like Aaron Hernandez. Clearly Hernandez is one of the best at his position, but Hanna does possess similar athletic qualities. Both tight ends have the ability to stretch the field and excel in the passing game. I believe that Hanna could become our version of Hernandez.
Back in May, Bob Sturm made the comparison, but he didn't go overboard and place a lot of faith in Hanna just yet.
You can see that the Cowboys still hope to find that Aaron Hernandez type. They have very similar frames and Hanna is almost 2 tenths faster in the 40. A tight end that can line up everywhere, do many things, not be counted upon to block too much, and stress the defense. Hernandez was taken in the 4th round in 2010, and is actually 6 months younger than Hanna. But, to compare him to Hernandez or even fellow Sooner, Jermaine Gresham is wishful thinking at this point. His development will determine if he is a prospect to follow or just a footnote in the media guide.
The Patriots know that Hernandez isn't a great blocker, so they discovered a role for him that plays to his strengths. If the Cowboys want to see Hanna play his best football, then they need to unleash him and play their athletic tight end to his strengths.
I am not saying Hanna is going to have a breakout season like Hernandez, but if the Cowboys learn how to use Hanna correctly, then he could become a major weapon that lines up all over the field and creates another matchup problem for opposing defenses.
Hanna has some work to do this offseason and training camp, but it's also up to the coaching staff to figure out how to use him. I'd suggest to start watching some film on the Patriots, because they have the formula in place, we just need to follow that formula with the players we have. The Cowboys cannot afford to have an athlete like Hanna on the sideline in 2013.
It's a copycat league, and it's time to start copying other high-powered offenses.