We recently received an astute request for an article here at BTB. A reader asked about the purpose of a blocking TE, specifically why a blocking TE was better than an extra tackle, and, finally if the Dallas Cowboys (or other teams) had a particular prototype set of measurables for the position. Being a long-time fan of the position (going back to my early days of pretending to be Jay Saldi in my backyard football endeavors), I wanted to take a look at this myself.
The reader actually answered his own question about why teams don’t often use an extra tackle. As the reader put it, "Obviously...they want someone a bit more agile and ideally a threat to catch the ball." That’s basically it, but perhaps I can add another layer to this. A tight end requires someone on defense with at least linebacker-grade speed and agility to run with them, and more likely a safety. Very few defensive line type players have that kind of agility and almost none of them will have the long speed to run downfield with even the slowest tight ends
Leonard Floyd is extremely young, agile, and explosive, which led to his selection as the ninth-overall pick in the 2016 draft. He ran a 4.60 forty and posted a massive 39.5" vertical at 244 lbs. And this is what happens when he’s left in man coverage with the "aging", "slow", "unathletic" Jason Witten
And the scary bit is that Floyd is a pass rushing OLB— his job is to actually do this once in a while. With a true DE, this would be much worse.
So the extra TE forces a smaller, less powerful -- and easier to block -- defender on to the field compared to an extra OT, and that is the main reason for favoring the second TE over a third OT as your final eligible player.
Now as for an ideal prototype for the position, the obvious answer is Jason Witten, but how far does that go for Dallas? Do they actually draft receiving and blocking TEs differently?
There were four TEs that went into camp last year with real shots at making the team: Jason Witten, James Hanna, Gavin Escobar, and Geoff Swaim. Their combine forty times were 4.49, 4.65, 4.71 and 4.84. Do you know which one was which? Perhaps more interestingly, they are all listed on the Cowboys roster as either 6’4" or 6’6" and between 260-263 lbs. The Cowboys certainly do appear to have a physical type, but it seems to be more about size than athleticism.
And I think this is largely because all Cowboys TEs are blocking TEs. While Witten has been a major weapon for his entire tenure here, Dallas has been extremely consistent about using its TEs in the blocking game. If you look at Joeseph.Hatz’s draft profile of O. J. Howard, you can see several ways Howard was used as a blocker. Dallas uses their TEs in each of those ways.
Here’s Geoff Swaim at the far left of the formation acting as an in-line blocker, similar to Howard’s first GIF.
Here Swaim comes through the middle in a wham-style block, not unlike the lead block Howard throws in Joseph’s article, just in a zone run instead of a lead draw.
Here we see Gavin Escobar get squared up on his man on the back side of the play (offensive left).
And finally we see Swaim in space to the left, helping spring Ezekiel Elliott for a big run. Witten has a very nice block on this play as well.
But the long and short of it is that Dallas expects all of their TEs to make all of these blocks. It’s simply part of the job description here. If you are not Jason Witten, you may get a few targets, but history shows that you won’t get much. Geoff Swaim has nine targets in two years, Gavin Escobar had about 15 targets a year before his demotion. Martellus Bennett, before them, got rich by comparison, averaging about 32 targets a season in his four years here. But even if you are Jason Witten, a large chunk of your job is doing the dirty work shown above.
Contrary to what most think, Geoff Swaim is not an overpowering blocker and Gavin Escobar an incapable waste of space. Swaim missed his share of blocks and Escobar made plenty. But certainly if you can get a seventh-rounder to do a second-rounder’s job, particularly if the seventh-rounder can actually beat him out, that’s a much better investment, and I don’t expect we’ll see Gavin Escobar back. But don’t be surprised if like Anthony Fasano and Martellus Bennett before him, Escobar goes on to have greater success elsewhere.