The Dallas Cowboys have a big question mark at tight end. After relying heavily on Jason Witten the last 15 years, it’s easy to not give much thought about his successor. Despite some second-round draft investments over the years, the team has failed to find anyone to stick. Martellus Bennett was an athletic player, but he was buried behind Witten and was never allowed to spread his wings. Gavin Escobar left in free agency after his rookie deal last offseason, but has struggled finding a home. Just a year after leaving Dallas he was signed by Kansas City, Baltimore, Cleveland, and now Miami.
When Witten suddenly retired this offseason, the Cowboys were caught off guard and now are left with a whole lot of uncertainty at the position. Can the current group they have supplement adequate tight end play? And if so, who are the guys most likely to get the job done? My friend over at Inside The Star recently took to twitter to ask that very question.
We all have our favorites. Maybe you’re a Rico guy because, let’s face it, “Rico” is fun to say. Or maybe it’s because he’s a 6’6” athletic specimen who looks like he has a catch radius of a venus flytrap. Either one is a good reason. Regardless of who your guy is, there are some good arguments to be made about each tight end getting the opportunity to have a key role in the Cowboys offense.
Geoff Swaim - the primary snap-getter
With an offense built around a strong running attack, one of the most important expectations of the team’s main tight end is that he can block. And when it comes to blocking, right now Swaim is their best guy. The team values blocking so much from the tight end position that they traded to get Swaim on Day 3 of the 2015 NFL Draft, even though he had no receiving upside whatsoever. He was a one-trick pony, but it’s an important trick this offense needs to have.
When Witten was on the squad, Swaim could slide easily into the blocking role of 12 personnel. Defenses still had to be mindful of 82 because he could slither away and get open on any given play. But Witten’s gone now, so are we going to see Swaim continue this type of role or is he expected to carry more of the workload in the passing game? While Swaim will do whatever is asked of him, there has to be some concern about his ability to contribute as a receiver. He doesn’t have good quickness and creating separation could be a real problem. Witten really kept defenders on their toes with incredible footwork and precise route-running. Swaim doesn’t have that skill.
Swaim’s blocking efficiency will keep him on the field, but like James Hanna, catching passes will be a rarity.
Blake Jarwin - the primary pass catcher
Over 90% of the teams’ receptions by a tight end came from Witten last year. Over his career, Witten averaged over 75 catches a season. This type of production isn’t expected to be duplicated by the new committee approach, but the Cowboys are going to need to get tight end receptions from someone. There’s a good chance that Jarwin is that someone.
An undrafted free agent from a year ago, most people remember him as the tight end the Philadelphia Eagles tried to pluck from the Cowboys practice squad. The team protected their rights to him by promoting him to the active roster. The team had minimal use for him however, as he only dressed for one game and was never targeted.
Things are going to be different this year. Despite not being drafted, he’s in good position to take on the lead receiving role from the Cowboys committee of tight ends. He is the closest thing to Witten the team has in terms of receiving traits as a tight end. He breaks off his routes quickly, adjusts his body as needed to position himself to make the catch, and has sneaky athleticism to be a legit downfield threat. And he’s already demonstrating the ability to become a favorite target of Dak Prescott.
It was Jarwin, not Swaim, making a splash in offseason activities. Dak Prescott regularly targeted Jarwin up the middle, particularly in red-zone situations. Jarwin’s been studying Jason Witten film and Prescott spoke highly of his ability to get open. It was a step in the right direction, Jarwin said. “I’m happy to continue to build that chemistry between us,” Jarwin said, “and the respect that I can be in the spot so he can get to me and trust in me that I’ll catch the ball.”
Jarwin still needs to bulk up and improve his ability as a blocker. He’s not terrible, but he’s also not consistent enough to be a reliable in-line blocker. Good coaching can fix this. With better pad level, leverage, and hand placement, Jarwin can give himself a fighting chance to carry out his blocking assignments. Even though this is still a weak spot for him, he’s still the most talented in-line/space combo tight end the team has.
Rico Gathers - the primary touchdown scorer
If we close our eyes and imagine this huge basketball star leaping up and snaring footballs from smaller defenders, it’s easy to get excited about the full potential of Gathers. Unfortunately, our imagination is all we have as he’s still yet to play a regular season snap in the NFL despite being in the league for two seasons. And there is no guarantee that it even happens as he’s one of those bubble players to make the 53-man roster.
The biggest area of concern for Gathers is his effectiveness as a blocker. It’s understandable that a college basketball player would have a large learning curve when it comes to transitioning into an NFL tight end. Rico has shown improvement, but most of the progress he’s shown is attached to the passing game.
Garrett notes that Rico Gathers has made "a lot" of progress. Says his position is not an easy one, that he's significant in the running game and deeply involved in all aspects of the game. Notes some (route running, pass-catching) comes easy to him.— RJ Ochoa (@rjochoa) June 12, 2018
Our own RJ Ochoa recently updated us on all the progress he’s made in his route-running ability with several video clips.
There still remains a big question mark about how he’ll hold up as a blocker. Missed blocks can get your running back blown up behind the line of scrimmage. Holding penalties can get your team behind the chains and stall drives. Gathers has to improve enough to not be a liability on the football field.
If Rico makes the team, there’s a good chance he won’t be taking on a large role as a blocker. Instead, he’ll get snaps in passing situations or in the red zone. Gathers should provide a large target and the team could exploit his size and quickness against the defense. The Cowboys had six total touchdown receptions by a tight end last season and five of them of them came from Witten. I could see Gathers finding the end zone three or four times this season and that should be enough to hold down the lead for tight ends.
Dalton Schultz - the primary tight end for the future
Believe it not, fifth-round pick Dalton Schultz holds the highest draft positioning of all the tight ends on the roster. The interesting thing about Schultz is how well his traits fit the Cowboys offense. He’s a strong blocker who has both the physicality and fundamentals to be an effective in-line blocker. While his college production as a receiver is very underwhelming, that’s not really indicative of what type of player he is in the passing game. He just wasn’t used as a receiver, so he’s a relatively unknown in that department. The potential is there for him to be a solid receiver. He knows how to find the creases against zone coverage. He can adjust on the fly if the defense disrupts his route. And his footwork is decent.
The only knock on Schultz is his inexperience. Being a rookie, he’s got a lot to learn to be successful at the NFL level. There is plenty of room for him to grow and it might not take very long for him to become the most balanced tight end in the group.
One thing about this group is that they all have different levels of skill in each of the two areas - blocking and receiving. And when you add up both of those areas, they all equal about the same level with nobody standing out as a legit number one tight end. That’s the bad news.
The good news, however, is that they should be able to supplement whatever they need with the assortment of skill set they have with this committee. Additionally, if any one of them starts showing improvement in the area they are weak at, they could take a nice step towards being a starting-caliber tight end. But right now, they’re just a motley group of players with some real cool-sounding first names.