The next in a series of posts looking at each position group on the Dallas Cowboys roster, and determining just how much of a priority it will be this offseason. (The links to the rest of the series at the bottom)
Position Group - Tight end
No position has been dominated for so long by one single player as the tight end position. It’s not like the Cowboys haven’t tried to develop a second tight end to complement Jason Witten, but when someone has been as good as Witten for so long, there’s just not much room in the Cowboys scheme for more than someone who can block. That time has passed.
Jason Witten, James Hanna, Geoff Swaim, Blake Jarwin, Rico Gathers
Jason Witten - For over a decade, the conversation about tight end with regards to the Cowboys started and ended with Jason Witten. One of the all-time great tight ends who could catch and block with equal prowess. It’s hard to knock Witten in anyway, as revered as he is for the Cowboys, but the truth is his skills are eroding fast. First it was his blocking ability, now it’s his ability to make a difference in the passing game. He can still function as a reliable check-down over the middle, but that is it. Teams no longer game-plan for him because he’s not a threat like he was before. He’s still useful in the offense, but his snap counts need to come down. He never misses games, and never comes off the field so the Cowboys can never truly develop a successor. The Cowboys job this offseason is to make that happen.
James Hanna - Really, how much needs to be said about the backup guys on the current roster? It’s almost always the same story. The Cowboys use them as blockers, and occasionally sneak them out in the pattern. Hanna makes a decent receiver and blocker, so he hangs on to a roster spot.
Geoff Swaim - Good blocker. Can occasionally catch a pass.
Blake Jarwin - They liked him enough to put him on the roster to keep him, but we just don’t know much about his game yet.
Rico Gathers - This is the name everyone’s been waiting to get to anyway. Is this the season we finally get to see Rico unleashed? Fans have been intrigued with Gathers ever since the Cowboys drafted the former basketball player, partly because of his unusual background for a guy drafted in the NFL, and for his rare combination of size and athleticism. The Cowboys had to teach him the game for a year, and then just when he busted out in preseason, a practice injury waylaid his season. It wasn’t just an ordinary concussion, it was a jaw/neck injury too, akin to something like whiplash from a car wreck. Rather than risk his health, the Cowboys ended up shutting him down for the year.
So will Year 3 be the year of Rico? Reports are that his health has greatly improved and that he could very well be ready for the first offseason workouts. Gathers has the prototype tight end body, perfectly built for today’s NFL. He moves fluidly, catches the ball well, and has learned the nuances of the game. His preseason last year had fans salivating at what he could do either in 12 personnel with Witten, or in place of the legend for some amount of snaps every game. Really, this is a huge moment for the Cowboys. Can they transition from Witten to Gathers, or is Rico just a unicorn, and what used to be a Cowboys’ strength - tight end - turns into a weakness?
Offseason Priority - Low*
I placed the offseason priority as low, but with an asterisk, because it’s a tricky situation. The Cowboys still have Witten, and he’s going to play a lot. And they, along with the fanbase, believe they might have something special in Gathers. Plus, they have a couple of decent blocking tight ends. That’s a pretty full cupboard, if everything pans out. But what if Father Time really catches up to Witten this season? What if Gathers really is a unicorn and all that hope and faith we have in him is misplaced? The Cowboys will struggle at the position.
Still, it’s a pretty good bet that the position will be well-fortified, so they need to spend their money/draft resources in other, more desperate, areas. This season, they need to bet on the fact that Gathers will become the replacement to Witten they need.