In part 17, we examine the wants and needs for Dallas tight end prospects:
What makes a media star? In Martellus Bennett's case, all the wrong things. Dallas then rookie tight end, the 2nd round pick in the '08 class made all the wrong moves for HBO and NFL Film's Hard Knocks '08 series, prevesting himself to the Cowboys nation as a flaky, petulant colt of a prospect. Bennett's segments led to knee-jerk claims that he was another wasted Dallas 2nd round pick, with the least patient fans calling for his immediate release.
The organization shrugged. They knew Bennett was likely to make a negative first impression. His behavior was certainly no surprise to them. I spoke with people who witnessed his first training camp and spoke highly of his athletic skills, but lacked maturity. I've been told that his college coaches were great at recruiting talents but not as great at developing that talent. The phrases I heard was that "he had a lot of bad habits," which needed to be broken.
If you understand Dallas' tight end templates, you'll know why the team has put up with Marty B's extended learning curve.
Dallas views tight end in the old school sense, as a hybrid blocking and catching position. A blue chip prospect must display the ability to get open in the middle of the field, at all depths. He must also have the hands and run after-the-catch skills to make big plays.
The prospect also needs the size, strength and will to handled defense ends one-on-one. This block is common on outside running plays and the tight end's ability to not only lock on, but to move the end often dictates success or failure on these plays.
Dallas will take a player who is dominant in one area or the other, but he must be adequate in his lesser skill, or he won't make the team. The organization stresses that players who excel at both blocking and receiving are rare.
Dallas has the prototype tight end in Jason Witten. He's not track fast, but he gets up the seam. He has excellent hands and runs very well after the catch. Witten's blocking skills have set him apart from the more athletic receiving types like Dallas Clark, Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates. Witten blocks on the edge, he flexes into the backfield and plays fullback; he also traps defensive tackles on "wham" traps.
Which returns us to Bennett. When Dallas scouted him, they saw a prospect whose tool kit matches Witten's. He's tall. He's fast. He can make the tough catch. Think back to Bennett's game winner in Washington two years ago where he caught a high Romo floater with safety Chris Horton draped all over him.
Marty B. can also block. While the cameras highlighted his clowning at that Oxnard camp, I saw his potential power. About twice a week, the tight ends and outside linebackers would square off for one-on-one blocking drills. The cones were put out and the tight ends had to lock on and maintain blocks against the Demarcus Wares, Anthony Spencers and Greg Ellises. Bennett was the only tight end besides Witten who could win his duels. Bennett didn't do it all the time, but he did it often enough to show he had a real future as an every down player.
That was why the Cowboys showed patience with Bennett that year and why they've continued to show patience with him to this day. Tight ends play one of the most complicated games outside of quarterback in Jason Garrett's scheme. They line up as traditional tight ends, on the edge of the offensive line. They line up as slot receivers. They work as F-backs; they work as fullbacks. When Dallas runs a wham, they act as the third guard. Finding players who can handle all these roles is hard. Training them to manage all these tasks is harder still. The Cowboys don't believe its value to train Bennett and then turn him over to blossom for another team.
I'm sure they take Witten's game into account. The Senator takes a Daryl Johnston-esque approach to blocking, and that hammering can take a toll. Witten has only missed two games since 2004, but consider the injuries he's overcome in that time. He's played with a broken jaw. Two years ago, he soldiered on through a cracked rib, a badly sprained ankle and other dings.
Witten's not the most elusive guy on the field, so he takes more than his share of shots. Players like that tend to wear out quickly. Look at Johnston. He was a hammer for eight years, then his body broke down. Witten just finished his seventh season of heavy duty. He may continue for another five years, but how much would the offense suffer if he couldn't play through an injury this year, and Bennett was in another uniform?
Bennett's development has been unbearably slow, but that's no doubt due to Witten's toughness. Marty B doesn't get half the reps in Dallas he would as the starter somewhere else. That has to slow his progress, and he was green to begin with. He enters year three now, and the hope is that he becomes this year's Bradie James or Anthony Spencer, talented players who saw the light go on at some point in their third campaigns.
Marty B. deserves the spotlight, for all the right reasons.
Tight end won't be a top priority as long as Witten and Bennett hold the top two spots. I do think they could draft another one in the latter rounds. If the team feels John Phillips deserves more time as a lead blocker, you might see another F-back type who can threaten linebackers and safeties going up the field.