The Dallas Cowboys have had a somewhat disturbing trend in recent years. While they have reeled off a series of really good picks in the first round, especially in finding superb offensive linemen, they have had a good deal of disappointment from their subsequent picks. Injuries and, especially lately, suspensions have played their part in these, but there have also been cases of players that just have not offered much in the way of production. The poster child for this may be Gavin Escobar, the tight end taken in the second round of the 2013 NFL draft. He has all the athletic traits to be a really good player, and he has flashed (very briefly) at times, but it is very difficult to argue that the Cowboys have gotten the value they should from a second-round investment.
There are some underlying reasons for his lack of contributions that go beyond his ability. The biggest is the guy in front of him on the depth chart, Jason Witten. It was thought that Escobar was selected as the eventual replacement for the likely Hall of Fame tight end. Witten was, after all, entering his tenth season at the time. He had already made one possible replacement, Martellus Bennett, irrelevant. But going into his second decade in the NFL, the team had to look to the future and his seemingly inevitable decline.
However, no one provided that script to Witten, who continues to perform at a very high level. Never an athletic freak, he has used technique, loads of football savvy, and an almost uncanny rapport with Tony Romo to remain firmly entrenched as the number one tight end. He almost never leaves the field and has incredible durability. This has severely restricted the opportunities for Escobar to make an impact. Further complicating things is that offensive coordinator Scott Linehan seems to place little priority on getting Escobar more involved in the game plan. Relying on a proven commodity like Witten makes sense, but does not help the backup’s progression.
Coming into training camp, Escobar was not even expected to be on the field as he recovered from the torn Achilles tendon he suffered late in 2015. But his progress was far better than anticipated, and he was ready for full participation on day one of camp - and looks far better than any predicted.
Camp thoughts: kinda shocked to see how well Gavin Escobar is moving after such a gruesome injury just months ago.— Lindsay Cash Draper (@LindsCashDraper) July 31, 2016
Of course, this still does not mean that Escobar will see any more snaps on the field or passes thrown his way this year. He is still very much at the mercy of the play calling and the persistence of Witten and his performance.
This is also a contract year for Escobar. Dallas has to make a decision in 2017 about whether to try and work out a new deal with him or let him seek his fortune in free agency. If he has another quiet year with little to show for it statistically, it might seem that he would generate little interest. However, Bennett showed that being buried in the depth chart behind Witten did not mean a player was not able to produce. He has had success in subsequent stops (his inability to stick with a given team seems to be more about his rather quirky nature than his play, and being with the New England Patriots could lead to his best year ever).
There are actually two ways the Cowboys could go forward with Escobar, assuming Witten will grasp his starting job with his usual unshakable grip. They could make an effort to get him on the field more and put the ball in his hands (assuming he did not lose the confidence of Romo or the staff with dropped balls or other mistakes). Or they could continue as before - and try to get him on a low cost second contract to have him as the eventual replacement for Witten, who cannot play forever.
The second option actually makes a good deal of sense, if the team feels he has the ability to step into the starter’s job when finally needed. Despite the injury last season, keeping him mostly in a reserve role would offer some protection from further harm. And it would make it a little more likely that the team could avoid a bidding war for his services. They would have a chance to get a second deal done with him before he hits the free agent market, and that would more likely be on terms favorable to the team. Given that the Cowboys are looking at what to do in order to keep their offensive line intact, they are going to prefer team-friendly deals in other places.
Escobar has not paid off in a way that is even close to what you expect from a second round pick, but as stated above, that may be much more about the situation in Dallas than his talent and ability. The staff may feel there is more there than they have ever used on the field, which may make him a part of their plans for the next few years. A player that the staff believes in because they see him in practices all the time is a better risk than trying to find and develop a new tight end through the draft, or going into free agency where prices tend to be inflated.
Linehan could fool us all and start using Escobar more, perhaps even to give Witten a little rest. He is going into his fourteenth season, after all. But that seems unlikely. Witten is as hard a worker as exists in the NFL, and as fierce a competitor as well. He and Romo have a connection that ranks among the absolute best in the league. Pending the unthinkable, the most likely course of action would seem to be that Escobar will continue to be an afterthought in the offense. Yet that may not mean at all that he has no future with Dallas. The investment in him may or may not start to pay off this season, but if the team believes in him, he may still get a chance to make good on it in a few years.