There are many unknowns about how Dallas will perform his year, but we do know that Dallas is committing to a two tight end base offense, i.e. 12 personnel.
Jason Witten, James Hanna, Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and DeMarco Murray will be the starting skill position players for this package. We know that four of these players are dangerous receivers. If Hanna turns out to be the weapon Dallas is hoping for, it will simply be too much for opposing defenses to stop.
New England led the league in scoring last year with Brandon Lloyd, Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski and Steven Ridley as the starters in their 12 personnel package. The receivers and tight ends in this group combined for 3538 receiving yards and 26 TD's.
Last year, Dallas wasn't committed to the 12 personnel as their base offense, but Witten, Bryant, Austin and Hanna combined for 3450 yards and 21 TD's. And this was in Hanna's first year in the NFL. He was rarely ever targeted. In fact, he only contributed 86 yards and no TD's.
This is why Hanna is the real wild card here. If Hanna can match the production of the Patriots former 2nd tight end, which was 483 yards and 5 TD's, it will be the tipping point for this offense. The five TDs by themselves are helpful, but the overload on the defense, which opens up things for everyone, is even more beneficial. It may be more intangible, but it is powerful.
What made the New England offense so unstoppable was the ability to make defenses wrong on so many plays. With two tight ends and a good back, the Patriots could run effectively against most base defenses. But they could also pass extremely effectively with the same personnel. So much so that teams would switch to nickel packages to slow down the passing attack with Gronk and Hernandez. When they did this, New England would start pounding the rock. When their opponents switched back to a base defense and brought safeties up, Brady would audible to a pass and kill them that way.
Dallas fans should be encouraged that their key 12 personnel weapons nearly matched the Patriots production in yards and touchdowns through the air.
But New England did something far more impressive in the red zone than what has been discussed thus far. They led the league in rushing touchdowns. Dallas meanwhile, finished 27th.
Part of this is due to the fact that the Patriots have a much better offensive line. But it is also because they were more committed to the 12 personnel in the red zone. Dallas often times went to three and four WR sets in the red zone, knowing that they had much better odds trusting Romo's magic, rather than their outmatched offensive line.
The other thing the Patriots did better, was distribute the targets between their two tight ends. The reason Hanna contributed only 86 receiving yards is that he only caught 8 passes. John Phillips, the other tight end last year, also caught 8 passes. So 16 receptions for the other tight ends and 110 receptions for Witten. No other team in the league was more unbalanced in its distribution of passes to its tight ends.
In order for Hanna to have a larger role in this offense, Callahan, Garrett and Romo will need to commit to getting him the ball. That means sticking with it even if there are some rough patches along the way.
In the long run, the unpredictability that will result from two tight ends that are dangerous receivers will be worth the downs invested in getting Hanna up to speed.
Speaking of speed, Hanna runs a 4.5-40, faster than every tight end in the NFL not named Vernon Davis. Which means that at 6'4" and 249 pounds, he has mismatch written all over him. So Hanna has the potential to do something that Witten no longer can do: make a simple 10 yard reception, break a tackle and take it to the house. Witten is still an immense asset to Dallas, but after 10 years in the league, he no longer possesses anything resembling break-away speed.
We all love Witten, but for a team that always moves freely between the 20's and bogs down in the red zone so often, maybe 110 receptions to the slowest receiver on the squad isn't the best strategy.
I realize the Witten fan club is reaching for their torches and pitchforks right about now. And yes, I have heard the familiar argument "Hey, Witten gets open and Romo can count on him to be where the hell he's supposed to be! He moves the chains!" That's true, but he doesn't score much.
Here is an eye opening stat for you: If you divide receptions by TDs, you get a nice stat on how quickly receptions by a given receiver translate into touchdowns. For Witten, its 18.3 receptions per touchdown, meaning that if he catches 19 passes, he most likely scored one touchdown. Here is that stat for some well-known tight ends:
Tony Gonzalez 12 rec/TD
Vernon Davis 8.6 rec/TD
Jimmy Graham 8.6 rec/TD
Rob Gronkowski 4.9 rec/TD
Dante Rosario 12.4 rec/TD
Jason Witten 18.3 rec/TD
Gronkowski's reception to TD ratio is insane. It's better than most wide receivers. Speaking of that:
Miles Austin 8.4 rec/TD
Dez Bryant 7.6 rec/TD
Dwayne Harris and the other receivers haven't been around long enough for this stat, but you get the idea.
Jason Witten is great for moving the chains and his value to this offense is immense. But in terms of scoring, and this is pretty important, Dallas needs to develop a tight end that gets in the end zone. Hopefully James Hanna will turn out to be that guy. If not, one has to hope that Escobar can get up to speed quickly. Because most fans aren't going to be content with cheering on Witten as he leads the league in receptions for another year if it means another 8-8 season.
Given that Hanna is the second fastest tight end in the NFL, it's reasonable to expect that he will develop into a red zone threat. But first you have to start throwing him the ball.