A few days ago, in part part 3 of our 10-part series on the Cowboys’ offseason, we speculated on the future of Jason Witten.
Plan: Signed through 2017. If Dallas does take another tight end high enough in the draft to be Witten’s replacement, they may have to move on after 2017, when Witten’s contract ends. His cap hit is $12.2 million this year, $4.8 million of which is restructured bonus from continuously converting his salary into signing bonus and stretching it out. Dallas could also decide that Witten will play as long or longer than Tony Gonzalez, who caught more than 80 passes a year until he was 37, and extend his contract two more years. They could do this without extending the structured bonus and thereby reduce his cap hit next year, and they probably don’t have to decide until after next season, as Witten won’t go anywhere if Dallas still wants him. Witten will be 35 this coming season. With Tony Romo, his injury history opened the door to his replacement. Witten is an ironman, so the Cowboys are going to have an even tougher decision to make.
Now, in a Cowboy’s podcast between Jon Machota and Brandon George, which was based on a conversation George had with Jason Witten at the NFL awards dinner, we learn that Witten may have thoughts of retiring after this season.
Jon Machota: One of the older pieces on the team is Jason Witten. When we were at the NFL Honors, you were able to catch up with Jason Witten on the red carpet. What did he really have to say about looking forward on his future?
Brandon George: It was interesting to me. He's kind of taking it year to year. 2017 is the last year on his contract. He said he doesn't really expect to sign an extension before 2017 because he said he's not really sure he'll play past 2017. He's gonna be, what I think, 35. Then you've got the situation where Romo likely won't play with the Cowboys in 2017, a good friend. A lot of things he'll probably have to consider. I think what he's gonna try to do, just from talking to him ... he's gonna try to play 2017, see how it goes and kind of reassess things, see if he wants to sign a contract extension and make a decision after 2017. Certainly, the way he talked, you get the feeling it could be his last year.
If he’s serious, that would certainly give the Cowboys offense a different feel after this coming season.
As we said in our team analysis,
Jason Witten is a sure first ballot Hall of Famer. And he plays nearly every down of the season. But he’s no longer an elite receiving tight end. He caught 69 passes for 673 yards, scored three touchdowns, and served as a Dak Prescott security blanket with Cole Beasley. He ranked sixth in receptions, but only 11th in yards among NFL tight ends. His three TDs tied him for 20th. He tied for 13th with seven receptions of 20 or more yards, but had none over 40 yards. He gained 33 first downs, ranking 13th, but only gained them on 47.8% of passes, which was 17th out of the top 20 tight ends in receiving yards. His former teammate Martellus Bennett beat Witten in every category. His AV was 7. Football Outsiders really didn’t like his game, ranking him 29th in DVOR and DYAR.
While Witten may no longer be elite, he is extremely reliable. He also provides wonderful leadership for the team as a whole given his tremendous work ethic. DeMarco Murray told Ezekiel Elliott after the draft if he wanted to have success in the NFL, to just follow around Jason Witten and do what he did.
Murray: "Everything and everywhere he goes be there by his side watching and listening. He will show him the way on and off the field."— Ed Werder (@Edwerderespn) May 6, 2016
There is little doubt the Cowboys would want Witten to return if he wants to, and as long as he wants. And there’s also little doubt that they could work out the salary side. The only real question is going to be - what does Jason Witten want to do?
The tricky part is, if he is going to leave, won’t the Cowboys be better off knowing it, so they can think about drafting his replacement this year? They’ve tried to do that several times - with Anthony Fasano, Martelus Bennett, and Gavin Escobar, but it’s never worked out. Yet if the Cowboys draft Witten’s heir and he decides to stay another 2-3 years, will that pick have turned into another mistake?
There are some good tight ends in this draft. But the Cowboys have plenty of needs at other positions - defensive line, cornerback, safety, wide receiver.
Should the Cowboys draft a tight end this year to protect themselves if Jason Witten decides to retire after this season? Or wait and see, then address it next year if they need to?