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While most of the burning questions for the Dallas Cowboys appear to be on the defensive side of the ball, the one position on the offense that has more questions than it has actual names on the roster is tight end. Consider this: The Cowboys only have four tight ends signed right now. When they broke camp in 2013, they had five on the 53-man roster (although that was short lived).
In addition to who Dallas plans to keep on the roster, the question remains as to how many they will carry. This is intertwined a bit with the fullback position, which was left out entirely to begin last season as the team loaded up on TEs. But everyone was also looking forward to the Cowboys unleashing the fearsome 12 personnel package last year. That expected raging tiger of an offensive grouping turned out to be more shy kitty cat, and Dallas soon reverted to heavy reliance on 11 and 21 sets.
It is just about certain that there will not be five tight ends with this team when they make the final cuts. Otherwise, things may be rather fluid. Here is where thing stand now:
The future Hall-of-Famer: There may not be enough superlatives to describe Jason Witten. The Senator has had one of the most consistent careers in the NFL. He is one of the finest technicians ever at his position, he is the official security blanket for Tony Romo, and he is one of the finest human beings to ever wear the Star. Despite the well-known tendency for players to lose effectiveness as they age and lose their speed (just ask me), Witten continues to thrive, perhaps because he never relied on speed to begin with. He is likely to continue to be a highly reliable receiver this year. The only part of his game where he does not excel is blocking. He is not a bad blocker, but he is not superb, either. Additionally, the team really does not want to have him sacrificing his body in that role. While his production has been declining somewhat the past few years, he still contributed 851 yards and eight touchdowns in 2013.
The (hopefully) rising star: Gavin Escobar was one of the reasons so many of us were salivating about the 12 personnel package last season, only to be disappointed as he was very underused in light of the second-round pick used to acquire him. He flashed signs of why the 'Boys invested so much in him, which makes his rookie season seem even more of a wasted opportunity. With only nine catches on the year (from 15 targets, which was perhaps part of the issue early on) for 134 yards and 2 TDs, he left us to wipe the slobber from our chins, red-faced at all out predictions for how he would be used to gash opposing defenses.
After the minicamp, all the reviews on him were good. He seems stronger and far more confident as a receiver, and new passing game coordinator/play caller Scott Linehan was using him like a dad on Christmas with a new power tool. He not only lined up as the first and second tight end, he was in the slot and split out wide, where his combination of size and straight line speed should cause some real matchup headaches for the other team.
The third wheel: James Hanna was used about 50% more than Escobar (315 snaps to 207, per Pro Football Focus - Witten played 1,012 downs, more than anyone not on the offensive line), but he was hardly impressive. His stats don't stack up that well, with 12 catches on 15 targets for a measly 73 yards. It is thought that he was used primarily for run blocking, but according to PFF's scoring system he was far and away the worst TE at that on the team. Hanna is almost certainly fighting for his roster spot. He has to show that he can add something to the offense. Last year, he really didn't. What he does do is play a lot of special teams snaps. Is that enough to keep his job?
The rookie: Jordan Najvar is a very real threat to Hanna. He was much more of a blocking tight end at Baylor, with skimpy receiving numbers. That is almost certainly the way the team would like to develop him. But he is largely an unknown at this point. Until the pads come on, the team really won't know what it has in Najvar, and they need to have a plan B ready. Which means that there is one other player to consider.
The guy from outside: Bryan Broaddus considers this a likely move, as he explained in a recent post.
The front office and coaching staff would have to do some serious debating about whether having that blocking tight end on the roster would be more valuable than what you get from Hanna on special teams.
A cursory glance at the rest of the roster shows that tight end is one of the least manned positions at the moment. Broaddus' logic is good, and probably influenced by something he heard roaming the halls at Valley Ranch. We all know Witten and Escobar will make the team, but who else and how many other tight ends Dallas winds up with is still very much to be determined. This is an interesting position to watch when training camp kicks off.