With long-time veterans Dez Bryant and Jason Witten no longer on the roster, the Cowboys are going to look vastly different at the skill positions in 2018. Bryant leaves a hole in the Cowboys receiver room, along with Brice Butler and Ryan Switzer, while Witten’s looming presence will no longer dominate the tight end’s room.
The national media continues to malign the Cowboys efforts for their supposedly inexperienced, unproven, and unreliable wide receiver group. Considering that the Cowboys only have one receiver on the roster who has had more than 1,000 yards in an NFL season, it is easy to understand those concerns. The receiving group came more into question when surgery required Terrance Williams to sit for a large portion of the offseason, along with his trouble with the law.
Some other guys expected to be in the mix will be new arrival Allen Hurns, rookies Michael Gallup and Cedrick Wilson, and Cole Beasley. Despite some hot streaks, Hurns has never been able to consistently stay healthy and perform. For Gallup and Wilson, wide receiver is traditionally a difficult position to transition to from college. Beasley had a down 2017 season; without known commodities on the offense, defenses will key in more on Beasley and attempt to take him away as Dak Prescott’s primary check-down receiver.
While the wide receiver and tight end positions have both lost their two figureheads, the Cowboys have invested more resources into improving the wide receiver position, yet that it the one that most people are criticizing the Cowboys for. Comparing the two positions, Dallas made significant efforts to fix the receiver position once Bryant was released. They signed Hurns and Deonte Thompson in free agency then used two draft picks on Gallup and Wilson. There were serious moves and decisions made to shore up the receiver position. Conversely, when thinking about the tight end position, the Cowboys just added Stanford’s Dalton Schultz in the fourth round of the draft.
It is not an indictment on Schultz, his talent, or his potential. He is a fine prospect coming from a school that has famously pumped talent into the NFL at the position. Stanford head coach David Shaw was extremely high on Schultz, labeling him as the “most complete” tight end Stanford had in recent years. He was not a dynamic, vertical pass-catcher in college, but he displayed potential within the seams and in the slot thanks to his natural athleticism and his soft hands.
He left after his junior year and at 6-foot-6, 245 pounds, his frame may need more mass before he can step onto the field and contribute in the Cowboys’ running game, something that will make or break whether they win games in 2018.
As it stands now, the Cowboys will likely start Geoff Swaim in their offensive sets. The Cowboys gave up a 2016 sixth-round pick to be able to draft Swaim in the seventh round of the 2015 NFL Draft. His intended purpose was to contribute on rushing downs, not to be a starting tight end. Behind Swaim are little-known commodities such as Blake Jarwin and Rico Gathers, the rookie Schultz, and undrafted free agent Davis Wells. Those five players have amounted for just nine professional catches, all of which have come from Swaim.
The Cowboys’ heavy use of their rushing attack will provide opportunities for the receiving group to win in one-on-one situations as defenses commit resources to stopping Ezekiel Elliot and Co. That same logic does not apply for tight ends, as the Cowboys will need to receive contributions from a few blocking tight ends. James Hanna was quietly a productive contributor in this regard, but his retirement now gives Swaim an even bigger role in this capacity. Can Jarwin contribute in a blocking role in specific sets, such as the Cowboys’ “11” personnel, one of the Cowboys’ more utilized formations?
This has the potential to be a big issue for the offense when Prescott needs someone to bail him out. Witten was capable of beating defenders over the years with his subtle ability to find space and get open. Now, Dallas has a lot of unknown players who have yet to prove themselves as capable everyday contributors.
Not only is the Cowboys’ lack of talent clear at the position, they have yet to really evolve the tight end position on par with some of the more creative offenses in football. That could have been due to Witten’s playing nature, but the league has moved to more athletic tight ends stretching defenses and being dangerous with the football in their hands.
Dallas may have that player in Gathers given his sheer athleticism and his combination of size and speed, but his inexperience combined with his medical history leaves more questions to be answered.
It is not getting talked about enough, but the Cowboys are hoping to get consistent production out of this position from some unknown players. Maybe Schultz can perform past initial expectations in 2018, maybe Gathers can realize his potential and become a red-zone threat, maybe Jarwin can surprise people, maybe Swaim is actually better than everyone thought.
One thing for sure is that the Cowboys will need to come to grips with the situation. Dallas is hinging on a pieced-together receiving group surpassing expectations in 2018 to take pressure off the run game. But Dallas will need production from the tight end position both in the rushing and passing department to get them back to the playoffs.