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BTB Mailbag: How Long Can The Cowboys Rely On Jason Witten?

Jason Witten has been a mainstay in the Cowboys lineup for a decade. How much longer will "The Senator" continue playing?

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

We recently asked the Blogging The Boys Community to come up with questions for the front page writers. One question that really caught my attention was asked by Mikie, who writes; "how many more years do you think Witten has left? Who has the best chance to take over once he retires?"

One of the common bits of wisdom of the modern NFL is that 30 is the magic age when most NFL players hit their decline. Jason Witten is 32 and has played 11 NFL seasons. Depending on what metrics you use, one could argue that he's either in decline, or that he's putting up the same consistent numbers he always has. Regardless, it's obvious that the end is in sight, even if it's not on us yet. So the question is, how much longer will Witten wear the Star?

I don't want to just give my own personal estimate, so I've gone back and looked at how long other top tight ends have lasted in the NFL, and was fairly surprised by the answer. Whenever a new player is drafted there's a tendency to proclaim, "Player Y is going to lock up Position X for the next decade!" And by and large we know that's not true; a decade is a long time in the NFL. But for top tight ends, a decade is about right. A quick look at 19 tight ends who are either in the HOF or have played in multiple Pro Bowls shows an average career span of about 10.5 years, (that includes three players who are still playing but have already passed 11 years in the NFL).

Witten of course, is one of those players, so he's already playing with house money. What about age?  Players who come in to the NFL at an older age would generally play less time. So what is the average age at which a franchise tight end hangs up the cleats? Using my numbers, franchise tight ends will generally play until they're 32 years old, and Witten just turned 32 in May this year.

Of course, Witten is far from an average tight end, or even an average franchise tight end. He's going to go down in history as one of the top five tight ends to ever play the game when he retires. So let's narrow the sample size and look at how Witten compares to the best tight ends of all time.

Name Age Years Played Years Active
Ozzie Newsome HOF
34 13 1978-1990
Kellen Winslow HOF
30 9 1979-1987
Mike Ditka HOF
33 12 1961-1972
Shannon Sharpe HOF
35 14 1990-2003
Tony Gonzales 37 17 1997-2013
Antonio Gates 33 11 2003-2013
Jason Witten 32 11 2003-2013

Looking at those numbers, the thing that stands out to me is that only Kellen Winslow retired at a younger age than Witten. The numbers also split pretty nicely into two distinct categories; historical players, comprising Newsome, Winslow and Ditka, and modern players covering Sharpe, Gonzalez, Gates, and Witten.

That's important because we know that advances in training and health management mean that, barring injury, players can generally play longer today than they could 20 years ago. And of the modern-era tight ends, Sharpe retired the youngest, at 35 with 14 years in the league. Gonzalez of course is the golden standard with 17 years played.

What Does it All Mean?

Witten was never a player who relied on overwhelming athleticism or speed, so barring injury, don't expect any major sudden dropoffs in play. I expect he could easily give us another three years without any significant drop off, (putting him in Shannon Sharpe territory), and I wouldn't be surprised to see him play just as long and be as effective as Tony Gonzalez.

If anything threatens Witten's time with the Cowboys it's not Father Time, it's the salary cap. Witten is signed through 2017 with an average cap hit of about $8,000,000. Dead money probably means he won't be cut for the next two years, but in 2016 his dead money drops from $5,000,000 to a little under $2,000,000 and in 2017 it drops to less than a million.

That being said, I fully expect Witten to play out his contract. We've seen with DeMarcus Ware that Jerry Jones will cut aging stars who no longer produce, but l don't expect to see any significant drop off in Witten's play. The question then is whether Witten gets one more contract. I imagine the answer to that depends on how close Witten will be to catching Tony Gonzalez. If Witten wants Tony's record, and feels like he can still play, I could see Witten signing a one- or two-year team-favorable contract that allows Witten to chase the record books and retire a Cowboy.

The wild card in all this is also the second part of the question; who will replace Witten? The easy answer of course is Gavin Escobar. He is a high draft pick and it seems the coaches have high hopes for him. But how soon can he supplant Witten? I expect to see Gavin slowly brought along for the next two seasons, perhaps getting a few more reps and touches, but still playing a significant second fiddle to Witten. What happens in 2016 when Witten becomes cuttable? I think that if he is still playing at a high level, then Jerry and Co. make no real changes and allow both Gavin and Witten to play out their contracts, and make a decision then.


How long will Witten play? A lot of that depends on Witten himself. He's 32; barring major injury I can see him physically able to play another 6 years, or until 2019. His contract expires in 2017. I fully expect Witten to play out his contract. At that point, depending on how much he wants those tight end records, I could see him signing a team-friendly two-year contract. I imagine those last two years see him in a secondary role, with he and Escobar essentially trading roles with the team.

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