Since the draft, when the Cowboys rather surprisingly took SDSU tight end Gavin Escobar in the second round, we have spent many a column inch discussing the benefits of "12" personnel, or the two tight end offense. Indeed, on draft night, moments after Escobar was picked, local (and former BTB) scribe Mike Fisher was told by insiders that this is to be "taken as a signal that Dallas is going away from using a fullback...[and] means more of DeMarco Murray lining up alone in the backfield."
Indeed, in the subsequent OTAs and minicamps, observers have seen a preponderance of single back formations. Perhaps this is because the lone fullback on the roster, Lawrence Vickers, has been dinged. But the fact that they haven't found another camp body or two (surely a Shaun Chapas type is available somewhere?) to take his place so that they could run their basic offense suggests that Fisher's information is correct: the "12" is going to be the basic offense, and that Vickers' time on the roster is limited (in fact, they may well cut him as soon as he is healthy. This suspicion has only been confirmed by the team's behavior; the most recent example is the signing of a fourth TE, Dante Rosario and the fact that the Cowboys had both LB Caleb McSurdy and OG Kevin Kowalski playing fullback in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
This begs the question: where, and how, will all these TEs be deployed - and, more importantly, in what combinations? Consider: each of the candidates can line up in a wide array of places: inline as the "Y"; flexed, either on or off the line of scrimmage; split out wide; as the "F" (in front of the running back), either between the tackles or outside but tight against the "Y"; or at "H" back (deeper in the backfield). And the Cowboys seem intent on devising as many combinations as possible. In a recent inverview on 105.3 The Fan, former scout Bryan Broaddus, noting that all four of the TEs most likely to make the roster have very similar skillsets, said:
They're gonna have four tights ends, I think they're gonna rotate ‘em around, they're gonna move ‘em in different spots, they're going to play them at the "y" inline, they're gonna move ‘em in the "H," move ‘em around, play them at the "F" as the fullback.
Because their skillsets are so similar, any two of Dallas' tight ends can each take any of these possibilities in a given formation, in a staggering array of combinations. Which of these combinations will be most effective? In which alignments might Escobar and James Hanna do the most damage?
The team must address these questions in training camp and answer by the time the season begins. In an effort to get a jump on this, I've gone back through all the reports from offseason practices to see where the Cowboys have been working Witten, Hanna, Escobar and Rosario. The common denominator in all of this is Jason Witten; we can expect him to be one of the two tight ends well over 90% of the time. Here's what I think we have so far:
Basic Deployments: in a departure from the "12" personnel we saw when Martellus Bennett was on the team ('Tellus proved incapable of playing on the wing, and settled in as a more or less permanent inline "Y") the Cowboys look like they will employ a base "12" grouping that consists of Witten as the "Y" and the fleet Hanna as the wing or move guy. They also have a "Big 12," wherein Witten is joined by Escobar, who is likely to be a better blocker than Hanna. In short yardage situations they ran out of "13" personnel, with Witten as the inline "Y", Hanna and/ or Escobar as the "H" and Rosario as the "F". And, as we have seen in the past, Witten has lined up as the "H" when the team is in three-receiver sets.
Notes on the Passing game: in the red zone, Witten has been running more routes down the middle of the field, which should be a welcome sight for Cowboys fans. In the past, largely because the team didn't trust Bennett or John Phillips to be a safety valve underneath, Witten has had to fulfill that role. Now, with the sure-handed Escobar (earlier in the week, I tweeted that he may well have the best hands on the team; he catches the ball as if he has first baseman's mitts for hands) able to run the underneath stuff, Witten (and the super-speedy Hanna) can be freed to work the deep center, stressing opposing safeties.
Nearer to the goal line, the aforementioned "13" personnel presents a run-heavy look out of which the team can pass. In recent practices, they used play action out of this formation, and Witten, Hanna and Escobar all were able to slip away and get quite comfortably open in the end zone - another welcome sight for beleaguered Cowboys fans. This is where the team is hoping the 6'6" Escobar can make a difference; in OTAs, he was able to come down with a TD on a Nick Stephens bootleg.
Notes on the running game: When the Cowboys insider told Fisher that the team was going without a fullback, Fisher noted that this was an important step in getting the team's woeful running game cranked up and running again. After the season, I wrote a post in which I argued that a huge contributing cause to the running game's demise in 2012 was the loss of Bennett, who operated much like a third tackle. Indeed, the Cowboys had two plus blocking tight ends on their draft board, and reportedly tried to get back into the draft's seventh round to get one of them, Rutgers' D.C. Jefferson. Alas, they could not swing a trade, and their four top tight ends are all receiving types. How, in the absence of a Bennett type, is the running game supposed to improve?
Largely because of a schematic shift. With more one-back sets, we should expect to see a lot more zone blocking principles. In his interview on The Fan, Broaddus noted that "when you run this zone blocking scheme, it's not so much about blowing guys off the ball as it is about running with the guy, fitting with the guy, and allowing the ball[carrier] to get outside, keeping yourself between the ball and the defender. And," he concluded, "I think that's what these tights are going to have to do." Instead of mashing one-on-one at the line, which stymied Dallas tight ends last year, Bill Callahan and Company are looking to get big, athletic bodies who can move with defenders, and seal the edge.
Some good news on this front is that Escobar, who was advertised by draftniks as a below-average blocker, showed the capability in camp to block from the inline "Y" position (remember he's on the field with Witten in the "Big 12" package). Also, a recent report noted characterized Rosario as "a blocking tight end who is also a decent receiver."
To sum up, I think the diversity of the other tight ends will allow Witten to line up all over the field, exploiting mismatches. We'll see Witten primarily at the "Y," but when he splits out wide or lines up in the backfield, Escobar (and perhaps Rosario) will man that position. We're not likely to see Hanna inline; rather, Garrett and Callahan will put him out in space, where he can use his elite speed to stress defenses, clear out zones, etc. We'll also see him at the "F," if for no other reason than he knows the position. Since the "F" back is the most complicated of the tight end positions, I'd expect to see Escobar mostly at the "Y," with some plays at the "H," until he gets up to speed. Since Rosario played in a similar offense in San Diego, I think we'll see the same trajectory for him, but with a much faster learning curve.
Although it looks like the Cowboys used the offseason workouts to get a real head start on figuring out this position's possibilities, there's still a lot of headscratchin' to be done. I'll be tracking this story carefully at training camp, so stay tuned!l
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