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With Wide Receiver Position Covered, Will Cowboys Look To Improve At Tight End In Draft?

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Looking ahead to the draft, the Cowboys could be in the market for a Jason Witten successor.

Virginia v Virginia Tech Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images

Jason Witten is 34, and in the last year of his contract. His cap hit is $12.2 million, with $4.82 million of it in restructured bonus because his contract was renegotiated year after year to release cap money. He still plays essentially every down, but is no longer an elite tight end. Football Outsiders ranked him 29th in both DYAR and DVOA last year.

DYAR means a tight end with more total value. DVOA means a tight end with more value per play.

If Witten wants to keep playing, the Cowboys are certain to keep him around, given what he’s meant to the franchise. And Witten himself hasn’t set any timetable for hanging up his cleats.

"I take it one year at a time. I love playing. I have high standards for myself and ultimately you want to compete for a championship," Witten said. "So at this point it's just one year at a time. I could say five more years or seven but if you're healthy and I love playing and I love that challenge of trying to get back and being a part of it and being a leader and trying to make a run at it."

But should the Cowboys continue to play Witten every down, giving only limited chances to a second tight end? Or should they consider bringing in someone much more explosive, who can stretch the field, or get far more yards after catch than Witten’s legs allow him to?

After the Cowboys re-signed both Terrance Williams and Brice Butler and kept their wide receiver group intact, this idea, which some have raised, should gain more credence. Essentially the Cowboys will be the same at wide receiver, with one potential change — a draft pick or down-roster player replacing Lucky Whitehead or holding down a sixth roster slot for this position group. It’s possible that player could be more dynamic than Williams or Butler and take snaps from one or the other, but it’s less likely than if the Cowboys had let one of their receivers go.

Is it more likely, given Witten’s age and limited range, that Dallas might finally draft a tight end who can bring the kind of game that Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce, or Jimmie Graham bring?

Certainly, neither James Hanna nor Geoff Swaim will ever bring that kind of game to Dallas. Can Rico Gathers?

James Hanna was a sixth-round pick in 2012. He missed last season with a serious knee injury. As our Tom Ryle pointed out, the description of Hanna’s injury as a “bone bruise” was the same way Anthony Spencer’s injury was described, and it essentially ended Spencer’s career. So we may or may not see Hanna return to action again. He’s a blocking tight end first and foremost, with a total of 33 catches in four years.

Geoff Swaim was a seventh-round pick in 2015, who has caught seven passes in two years. He’s also primarily a blocker.

Rico Gathers was a seventh-round pick in 2016, but didn’t make the roster. He was cut and then brought back to the practice squad. Bryan Broaddus thinks he could be a breakout player in 2017.

I wouldn't be one bit surprised if Rico Gathers was the player on this roster that makes the biggest jump contribution wise from last season to next season. One of the best things to happen to Gathers was that he had the opportunity to work with Tony Romo. Folks that I had the chance to visit with after the season told me Gathers wore the defense out during these practices. This was in large part due to Romo's insistence of throwing him the ball no matter how covered he was. Each week Gathers improved even to the point where in the final couple of weeks of the season he was getting snaps with the first offense.

But that’s just a guess. Only the coaches have a sense of where Gathers is at this moment. Jason Garrett weighed in just a couple weeks ago.

"He has lot of athletic ability," Garrett said on Wednesday from the NFL Combine, via The Dallas Morning News. "There a lot of things to like about him. He made a lot of progress. A lot of it has to do with the kind of athlete he is and the potential he has physically, and maybe as much as that is his willingness to do it.

"He did a lot of stuff on his own, with Mike Pope, with Steve Loney to try to get better. Before practice, after practice, he took as many reps as anybody did on our team in practice throughout the year. And you saw him make a lot of strides.

"I think he really loves football. He works very hard at it. You see the steps he's made."

Garrett stopped just short of saying Gathers is ready for his debut next season, though.

"He still has a long way to go," said the 2016 NFL Head Coach of the Year. "We all understand that. But we are certainly optimistic about his ability and the approach he is taking."

This sounds promising, but only to a certain point.

Instead of spending a top-three pick at wide receiver, might Dallas surprise by snatching a tight end high enough to be a true impact receiver going forward?

We know Dallas loves players with high SPARQ scores. In this tight end class, there are a lot of freakish SPARQ athletes at tight end.

# Name ID Pos. School Age HT WT pSPARQ z-score NFL%
1 Jonnu Smith TE18 TE FL International 22 6030 248 139.3 1.6 94.9
2 Bucky Hodges TE08 TE Virginia Tech 22.1 6060 257 138.7 1.6 94.5
2 Evan Engram TE05 TE Mississippi 23 6033 234 137.9 1.5 93.8
3 David Njoku TE12 TE Miami 21.1 6040 246 137.4 1.5 93.2
4 Gerald Everett TE06 TE South Alabama 23.2 6030 239 132.3 1.1 86.8
5 O.J. Howard TE09 TE Alabama 22.8 6056 251 129.9 0.9 82.6
6 Adam Shaheen TE17 TE Ashland 22.9 6060 278 125.1 0.6 72

Will one or more of these guys be targeted by the Cowboys this year to change up their tight end position?

This mock, issued yesterday, has Dallas again going tight end in the second round to nab Bucky Hodges of Virginia Tech.

If Dallas indeed goes this route, they just have to use him.