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Dallas Cowboys UDFAs And Roster Battles: Tight End

The tight end position will be a battle to watch for, and James Hanna could make a run for a roster spot.
The tight end position will be a battle to watch for, and James Hanna could make a run for a roster spot.

Jason Witten is one of the best tight ends in NFL history, but he is beginning to age. Witten will turn 30 years old this Sunday. The Cowboys want to have a reliable option behind him. When they spent a second-round draft pick on Martellus Bennett in 2008, they had planned for Bennett to add more wrinkles to the offense. He never developed into the player the Cowboys had envisioned and they decided not to re-sign him this offseason.

Jason Garrett has developed his offense with the heavy use of the two tight end set. Garrett likes to run the football with this formation, but he also mixes in the pass. Bennett never grew into the receiving tight end he was supposed to be because of his athletic background. One of the few Cowboys success stories from the 2009 draft is 6th-round draft pick John Phillips. While he is a solid player, his role could be in jeopardy with the addition of some young tight ends brought in to compete for a job.

Garrett is a firm believer of competition at every position. The running back position will be one interesting battle to watch for, but the tight end position is right on par in terms of competition.

Related: Dallas Cowboys UDFAs and Roster Battles: Running Backs

John Phillips

Phillips was well on his way to surpassing Bennett on the depth chart during the 2010 pre-season, but his opportunity went up in smoke when he tore his ACL during a game against the Bengals. I look back at that tragedy and shake my head because Phillips really looked like one of the best players in training camp that year. Some say it takes at least two years to recover from an ACL injury, so maybe this season Phillips finally regains the form he found in the 2010 training camp.

The young guns brought in this offseason will make him earn his roster spot. Garrett will probably carry three tight ends on the roster like he did at the beginning of last season. Phillips has earned his role on this team in the past, but he will have to fight for it again. I think he is too solid of a football player to let go, but a more physically talented tight end could keep him off the team.

He will have to shine as a blocker and a receiving threat in order to make the team. Phillips had trouble as a lead blocker last year, so it is something he will have to improve on.

James Hanna

This wasn't a very talented tight end class, but the Cowboys did a good job when they landed Hanna in the 6th round. Ladarius Green was the tight end I would have gone after, but he was drafted before we had a chance to take him. The 6th round pick from Oklahoma has some tremendous athletic ability. Let's take a closer look at his workout from the NFL Combine in February.

  • 4.49 40 yard dash (top performer at tight end)
  • 24 bench reps of 225 pounds
  • 36 inch vertical jump
  • 122 inch broad jump
  • 6.76 3 cone drill (top performer at tight end)
  • 4.11 20 yard shuttle (top performer at tight end)
  • 11.43 60 yard shuttle (top performer at tight end)

When you are getting a draft pick with those type of measurable's in the 6th round, then the Cowboys may have found themselves a steal. Many who have dismissed the pick as nothing special have pointed out that Hanna only produced 52 receptions, 720 yards and 9 TD's in his four-year career at Oklahoma. What they fail to point out is that Hanna didn't become a starter until his junior season, where 7 of his 9 career touchdowns happened to come.

At 6'3, 252 pounds, he has the size and athleticism to become a receiving threat for the Cowboys. Blocking just isn't his forte, but on tape he does flash the potential to grow in that area down the road. draft guru Mike Mayock listed Hanna as one of his rising prospects at tight end before the draft.

Mayock: "He doesn’t block anybody, but when you’re talking about a 252-pound kid who can run a 4.45, that’s rare. Because of that, he’s going to get pushed up. I think he’s going to go in the fourth round, and I think it’s going to be somebody who’s going to say, ‘I know he’s not a blocker. But we’ve already got a blocking tight end. He’s going to be more of a move guy that we’re going to develop.’ If you’re a team that already has a base-blocking tight end and you’re looking for a vertical threat to pair with him, this is the kind of kid you draft.’’

Mayock's analysis is exactly what I think the Cowboys have in mind for Hanna. In my opinion, he was a real steal in the draft that late. Hanna has the tools to compete for a roster spot and hang onto the 53-man roster while he develops into a better blocker. He is a fast tight end in the mold of Aaron Hernandez and Jimmy Graham, but he will have to improve his overall game in order to stay a Dallas Cowboy.

George Bryan

While Bryan is more of the traditional blocking tight end, we shouldn't ignore his contributions as a receiver. Bryan put together a solid career at North Carolina State.

  • 2008: 18 receptions, 201 yards, 4 TD
  • 2009: 40 receptions, 422 yards, 6 TD
  • 2010: 35 receptions, 369 yards, 3 TD
  • 2011- 33 receptions, 331 yards, 4 TD

126 career receptions and 17 touchdowns is nothing to sneeze at. He is a slow tight end, running in the 5 second range in the 40 yard dash, but he has been a productive player. His CBS Sports draft profile describes him having excellent hands.

Strengths: Has hands of glue, about as good as you'll see in the sport of football. Excels finding soft spots in zone coverage and using his large frame to shield defenders. Quality blocker. Has enough power and bend combined with good technique which consistently results in successful blocks. Productive, durable, experienced leader -- top intangibles. Weaknesses: Is a bit high-hipped and slow to get rolling. Frame limits upside as a blocker. Isn't agile for a tight end. Might have real trouble getting open at the next level. Will have to answer questions from NFL teams about drug charges that were ultimately dropped. NFL Comparison: Bear Pascoe, New York Giants --Brad Noel

The Bear Pascoe comparison is actually a pretty promising one. Pascoe isn't a superstar for the Giants, but he makes plays for them. If Bryan ends up making this team, it will be as a block-first tight end with some red-zone ability. He has the size, 6'5, 258 pounds, to become a dominant blocking tight end who could bring some reliable hands to the roster.

Andrew Szczerba

Oh I cannot wait to hear Brad Sham announce this name once the preseason starts. I won't lie to you and say I know a lot about Andrew Szczerba, because I don't. Honestly I cannot remember the last time I scouted a Penn State player on offense. They rarely produce offensive talent anymore, so usually I stick with their defensive prospects.

After doing some homework on Szczerba, I found out what I already had assumed, he is a blocking tight end. Once again I tabbed CBS Sports for their draft profile on the Penn State tight end.

Positives: Excellent size. Is a strong and competitive blocker who doesn't back down. Good upper-body strength, long arms and good hand placement. Can turn and seal off defenders and works to sustain blocks. Soft hands for the reception. At least adequate flexibility to reach low and wide for the poorly thrown pass. Bullish runner to bring down after the catch. Stood out at NFLPA Collegiate Bowl practices in January. Negatives: Deep durability questions, including back surgery. Ordinary athlete with no speed and minimal production (14 career catches) at Penn State, in part due to conservative offense.

Then I found this interesting piece on Szczerba from Black Shoe Diaries, the SBNation Penn State blog.

Outlook: Szczerba battled injuries his entire career, so it's difficult to pin his lack of performance on anything but all that playing time lost--though when he did manage to get in the game, Szczerba didn't really turn any heads. All that said, it's hard to imagine that teams will be champing at the bit to bring Szczerba aboard. Although he certainly looks the part of an NFL tight end, checking in at 6-6, 262 pounds, he ran a 5.12 second 40-yard dash at Penn State's pro day. For someone with so little experience to fall back on, that won't help him earn the benefit of the doubt from NFL scouts. And frankly, this generation of tight ends is nothing like the lumbering in-line blockers of days past--goodbye, Anthony Becht. They're freakish athletes like Rob Gronkowski and Vernon Davis who pose matchup problems first and foremost. If Szczerba is going to catch on, he'll have to prove himself a fantastic blocker, an extra offensive tackle of sorts, for a team that hasn't yet caught on to the appeal of the spread offense--think a Ben Hartsock or Matthew Mulligan type.

I agree with Devon Edwards, the writer of that article. It will be extremely hard for this kid to make an NFL roster without any receiving ability. From what I read, he sounds like a hard worker and the RKG, but effort can only take you so far. Garrett is looking for RKG's, but he is also looking for football players. George Bryan and John Phillips at least offer us some versatility as pass threats, Szczerba may be a one-trick pony that will have a hard time making the roster.

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