The possibility of the Cowboys drafting a tight end has become somewhat of a running joke here on BTB. When it was announced a couple of weeks ago that the Cowboys had a private workout scheduled with tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz, that news was met by a lot of snarky remarks. Snarky remarks that could easily come back and bite some of those snarksters in the posterior.
Keep in mind that the Cowboys currently have only three tight ends on the roster, and James Hanna, a former sixth-round pick who hasn't done much to distinguish himself entering his third year, may not be a roster lock this year. Last year, the Cowboys kept five tight ends on their roster during final cut downs, only to trade Dante Rosario to Chicago shortly thereafter. They opened the season against the Giants with four tight ends on the roster - as they had done the two years before.
Here's an overview of the opening day rosters and the amounts of tight ends on those rosters going all the way back to 2006:
|Fullback||- -||1||- -||2||1||1||2||1|
The reason why I've included the fullbacks in this list is that over the last eight years, the sum of fullbacks and tight ends on the opening day roster has never dropped below four. And that's in part because the Cowboys like their tight ends to do something that fullbacks do as well: Block. And while many Cowboys fans understand what a blocking tight end is, many fans of other teams do not.
With the advent of the shotgun-, spread-, and zone-read offenses, teams are increasingly looking for mismatches in the passing game by essentially using tight ends as bigger receivers and playing them against a linebacker or safety. Jimmy Graham, nominally a tight end though he disputes that designation, has filed a grievance with the NFL asking that he be franchise tagged as a wide receiver ($12.315 million) rather than a tight end ($7.035 million). And he has a good case, because he lined up in traditional wide receiver positions (in the slot or out wide) on 66.8% of his snaps in 2013. By comparison, the Cowboys' Jason Witten lined up in those spots on only 32.6% of his snaps, while Gavin Escobar, the Cowboys' blocking-challenged other TE, had a percentage of 71.4%.
The Cowboys like their tight ends in the Witten mold, and they like them to be able block. Martellus Bennett did little else in his time in Dallas and neither did John Phillips. But today, the Cowboys find themselves with an ageing Witten (whose contract they didn't restructure this year to make sure it will be easier to release Witten when age catches up with him) and two pass-catching tight ends who can't block very well in Gavin Escobar and James Hanna. Perhaps Escobar can use the offseason to get stronger and become a better blocker, but that seems like somewhat of a stretch. Perhaps the Cowboys will once again keep a fullback on the roster to help with blocking, or they could simply go out and draft a blocking tight end.
Another team that has a high affinity for blocking tight ends are the Patriots, and Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston has the lowdown on where the Patriots stand in their search for tight ends:
The quality of the tight end class in the draft has seemed to spark more questions than answers since the NFL combine, which isn’t the best news for the Patriots considering their need at the position. I’ve always felt like Bill Belichick placed higher value on those at the position who are pure combination players (blocking and pass-catching) more so than glorified wide receivers, which is why I’d project Notre Dame’s Troy Niklas (6-6, 270) to top the team’s rankings. He’s projected as an early-round pick.
If the Patriots wait a bit longer, it’s players like Fresno State’s Marcel Jensen, Iowa’s C.J. Fiedorowicz and Colorado State’s Crockett Gillmore who figure to warrant a closer look as developmental types, and as one would expect, the Patriots have spent or are scheduled to spend time with those "second-tier" prospects as part of the pre-draft scouting process. They are extremely thorough when it comes to scouting.
Like the Patriots, the Cowboys have started the process of finding that elusive dual-threat or 'pure combination' tight end. But finding a true dual-threat tight end who is equally adept at blocking and receiving is so difficult that teams often have no choice but to keep two distinctly different players on the roster, one as a blocker, the other as a receiver.
There's a remote chance the Cowboys could find a dual-threat tight end in free agency at some point, but there's a much better chance that they'll find a guy they like in the draft. The best blocking tight ends in this draft are Troy Niklas and C.J. Fiedorowicz, though Niklas offers much more potential than Fiedorowicz, especially in the passing game. But there are other tight ends later in the draft who are at least passable blockers and not just overly tall receivers from spread offenses who've never lined up as the in-line tight end in a three-point stance next to the tackle in their life. Here's an overview:
|Potential blocking tight ends in the 2014 draft|
|CBS Rank||Player||School||Height||Weight||40-time||Bench press||Proj. Round|
|47||Austin Seferian-Jenkins||Washington||6-6||262||- -||20||2|
|58||Troy Niklas||Notre Dame||6-7||270||- -||27||2|
|144||Crockett Gillmore||Colorado State||6-6||260||4.89||18*||4-5|
|178||Xavier Grimble||Southern California||6-4||257||4.90*||16*||5-6|
|254||Marcel Jensen||Fresno State||6-6||259||4.85||24||7|
|(*) indicates Pro Day results|
After the "Move" tight ends like Eric Ebron and Jace Amaro get picked early, teams will quickly shift their focus to the "Y" tight ends like Seferian-Jenkins, Niklas and Fiedorowicz, and the Cowboys may find that demand for these blocking tight ends far outstrips supply, easily moving Fiedorowicz out of their reach. The Cowboys will most likely have to look for their guy on the third day of the draft, where a prospect like Marcel Jensen out of Fresno State could pique their interest. Here's what Nolan Nawrocki of NFL.com has to say about Jensen:
Strapping, athletic, long-armed, ascending talent who did not play a starring role in a run-and-gun, receiver-dominated spread offense, but has raw physical tools to develop into a balanced "Y" tight end. Should only get better and has potential to become an asset in the running game and a mismatch in the passing game.
You may not like the idea of drafting a tight end in this draft, but you may want to get used to the idea early - there are a few prospects in this draft that could piss you off but still make sense for the Cowboys.