Cowboys free agent tight end Martellus Bennett is most likely on his way out of Dallas. Bennett was a second-round draft pick that never materialized into what the Dallas Cowboys had imagined. His four years with the team were an up and down affair leaving fans begging for more. You can officially declare him a bust now. NFL teams don't invest high draft picks on blocking tight ends, or at least teams that draft well don't.
Related: Martellus Bennett Says He's Leaving The Dallas Cowboys
One popular argument says the Cowboys drafted the wrong tight end back in 2008. Jermichael Finley had a similar skill set to Bennett. He also had immaturity concerns and was raw coming into the draft. Both tight ends were going to be a project in the NFL. Finley was the better receiving prospect, while Bennett was the better blocking prospect. There were many scouts who predicted, correctly, that Bennett would have trouble as a receiving tight end in the NFL due to his lack of speed and work ethic.
Credit New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick for the evolution of the athletic tight end. He is also credited with running a multiple tight end set that features their receiving ability. The Cowboys were onto to this idea back in 2008 when they drafted Bennett out of Texas A&M. Even though they already had one of the best tight ends in the league with Jason Witten, the team envisioned Bennett and Witten becoming a dynamic duo at tight end.
We don't know who exactly to credit for the idea, and it never worked out. But at least the Cowboys saw something that many teams did not a few years ago. Moving forward from the imminent departure of Bennett should not be overwhelming for the Cowboys because they have a capable tight end already on their roster.
More after the jump...
The 2009 draft class is one of the worst in team history, but Phillips is one of the few quality players the Cowboys did end up with. The sixth-round pick is utilized more as a blocking tight end, but he does have some ability to be used in the passing game. Coming out of Virginia, the skills that were highlighted in his scouting reports were his strong blocking technique, good hands, clean routes and strong work ethic. This is the type of tight end that may not wow you with his athletic ability, but his blue collar approach towards the game will help you win football games.
He played a backup and special teams role as a rookie, but when he stepped in he produced. Instantly you could tell the Cowboys had discovered a solid tight end. After playing behind Bennett his rookie season, Phillips was going to get his chance to jump him on the depth chart in 2010.
In the pre-season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals, he looked amazing. Phillips was showing his improvement as a receiver and was getting open almost every time down the seam. With 4 receptions for 60 yards, it looked like he was ready to take the next step. His season ended abruptly when he tore his ACL early in the game. It was upsetting because his hard work was paying off that pre-season and he was well on his way to being the #2 tight end.
If not for that injury, Phillips would have jumped Bennett on the depth chart a long time ago. ESPN Dallas reporter Bryan Broaddus believes that Phillips was a huge loss for the team.
"Once he got hurt in training camp, that really affected the Cowboys in what they wanted to do on offense. Some of the stuff in the run game, passing game and in protection he was very productive at it. He was coming along in training camp and he was pushing Bennett as the second-team tight end behind Witten. It was a big loss for him not being in there."
The injury set back his career and he hasn't been the same player since then. 2011 was a productive season for Phillips, but you can tell he lost a step or two since the injury. ACL's take time to fully recover from, so maybe a full offseason workout program can develop some of the strength and athleticism he lost.
Bennett is terribly inconsistent, while Phillips appears to be the more consistent player. He knows his assignments and runs his routes correctly. Bennett is the better blocker according to PFF, grading out at +8.2, Phillips graded out with a -4.8 as run blocker. Although his blocking needs work, it is decent enough to play the hybrid H-back position Jason Garrett utilizes in his offense. Bennett had 17 receptions for 144 yards and 0 touchdowns in 2011, Phillips had 15 receptions for 101 yards and 1 touchdown. If Phillips replaces Bennett, at the very least there would not be a loss of production in the passing game.
Phillips must improve as a run blocker, but I believe he can adequately do that for us. He is an improvement over Bennett in the passing game and less of a headache on and off the field. I will begin working on a tight end post that will feature some options for us in the draft, but the Cowboys may not have to reach for a tight end in this year's draft if they lose Martellus Bennett in free agency, because John Phillips is capable of replacing him.