Jason Witten is not going to last forever. I can see how you might not believe that considering a year after he retired, he’ll be out on the football field catching passes. Not a lot of retired people do that. Even with the return of Witten, the Cowboys are still in search of their tight end of the future. The team likes what they have in undrafted free agent Blake Jarwin, but is he the answer? The Cowboys also drafted Dalton Schultz in the fourth round last year, but is he the answer? Both of these young guys showed a lot of progress down the stretch and we will wait and see how much they have grown, but as of now - the team is still looking for a starting caliber tight end for this offense.
The upcoming NFL Draft has a lot of quality players at the tight end position and the Cowboys should definitely check things out, but when exactly is the right time to draft one? In order to figure out when the team should be looking to pull the trigger on a tight end, let’s take a look at the tight end tiers and when players are expected to come off the board and then come up with a good draft strategy for when the team should target a tight end.
There are two great Iowa tight ends in this draft, but Hockenson is the hands-down star of this draft class. He has no weakness in his game and should be a factor right out of the gate. If you play fantasy football, you would be wise to select him late as he could be the next big star tight end in the NFL.
Chances of Cowboys getting him: Zero. T.J. should be gone midway through the first round if not top 10. He’s the real deal.
Fant isn’t as fine tuned a blocker as his Iowa teammate, but the sheer athleticism makes him the best receiving tight end in the draft. In a passing league, Fant has the skill set to come in and make a difference right away. Any team getting one of these Iowa guys is going to be loving it.
Chances of Cowboys getting him: Zero. Even if something fluky happens and he slides out of the first round, he won’t last long on Day 2. He’s just way too far out of the Cowboys reach.
Irv Smith Jr.
Outside of Hockenson, Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr. is the most complete tight end in the draft. There are other players who are equally dynamic as a pass-catcher, but they aren’t as sharp when it comes to handling tight end responsibilities. Smith Jr. is the last of the elite tight ends from this draft class.
Chances of Cowboys getting him: Very slim. With both Green Bay and New England picking late in the first round, Smith Jr. could get snatched up before the end of Day 1. He’ll most likely last into the second round, but he’s not making it to 58. If he starts sliding into the 50’s, it wouldn’t be the worst thing if the Cowboys used their fourth-round draft pick to jump ahead of the Patriots (assuming they didn’t draft Fant in Rd 1) to steal him. He’s the last of the elite from this class and he could be the team’s long term answer.
The Texas A&M tight end is a great consolation prize for those who miss out on the elite three. Sternberger can kill defenses up the seam and his strong hands combined with proficient route-running make him a great add to any team looking for a starting tight end.
Chances of Cowboys getting him: He has a great chance of being there at 58, but this is too early considering how many other great options should still be available. The Cowboys should just pass and hold their breath he makes it to the next round. He probably won’t, but those are the breaks.
The Mississippi tight end is an interesting case because of how little he was used. He only has 39 catches in his college career and just 15 last season. Those numbers don’t exactly scream NFL star, however his athleticism is going to draw interest from many teams and considering he’s an official 30 visit - the Cowboys are one of those teams.
Chances of Cowboys getting him: Decent. The Cowboys love taking risks in the second round, however this year’s second-round pick is their first selection of the draft. Maybe that gamble gets pushed back a round? Knox is a great prospect to take a gamble on. He should come off the board right around where the Cowboys pick in third round and he’s the last of this class that has the upside to be a star tight end.
While Knox has hidden upside from being underutilized, the San Diego State star tight end Kahale Warring brings hidden upside from inexperience. He’s still raw in a lot of areas, but has shown good progress for what little time he’s spend at the position and at the rate he’s going - he could turn into something special. His mobility and smarts to pick up blocking quickly makes him a high upside development tight end for a team that say, has a Hall of Fame mentor on the squad to groom him.
Chances of Cowboys getting him: Decent. If the team doesn’t take a tight end on Day 2, then Warring would be at the top of my list for Day 3.
The Cowboys need their tight ends to be strong blockers so that makes a great athlete like Josh Oliver slide down the ranks a bit. However, it shouldn’t rule him out completely. He’s got great hands and can be a threat in the passing game, but until he can get the fundamentals down - he won’t be garnering a lot of reps. His route-running ability and play strength as a blocker are knocks on him, but he has shown some improvement in his blocking ability recently. An impressive Senior Bowl and combine had driven up his stock.
Chances of Cowboys getting him: Unlikely. Oliver should still be around on Day 3, but he’s likely to be over-drafted by a team that has a bigger use for a one-trick pony space tight end.
Similar to Oliver, UCLA’s Caleb Wilson is just a pass catcher. He’s not dreadful as a blocker, but he’s going to have to bulk up if that’s going to be a part of his regular game. The limited range of skills Wilson has is enough to put him out of sight, out of mind for most of the draft, however his athletic appeal starts to become more desirable if he’s lingering around later in the draft.
Chances of Cowboys getting him: Not good. He’s just not the type of tight end the team looks for, but if they want a Rico 2.0 project who’s a lot more experienced, they could do a lot worse with a late-round draft investment.
The Utah State tight end should be higher on this list as he’s much more polished than many of these other guys here. He can block, he’s a strong-route runner, and his hands are very reliable. The only issue is he’s just very blah as an athlete and doesn’t offer any upside. If the Cowboys didn’t have Schultz on the team already, I’d be much more on board for targeting a player like Raymond, but he just doesn’t offer the team much more of what they already have.
Chances of Cowboys getting him: Decent. His floor is too high to slide too far and will make a great complementary TE2 for a team that already has a pass catching TE. Dallas just isn’t that team.
Step 1 - Don’t even look at tight ends until round three
Fight off all temptation to trade premium draft capital for one of the stars and don’t reach for Sternberger at 58. If Sternberger is there at 90, fantastic! If not, consider Knox if he’s one of your top players left on your board.
Step 2 - Make round four your target area
There should be a player at 90 available that the team loves and if it’s not a tight end, no problem. Regroup and look to Day 3 to find their guy. If they miss out on Sternberger or Knox, coming away with Kahale Warring in the fourth round would still be a reason to celebrate.
Step 3 - Throw a dart at an upside receiving TE late
If the Cowboys don’t land one of the good ones, that’s okay. But the last thing they want to do though is to use a late pick on a JAG. For example, Washington’s Drew Sample is an official 30 visit. Why? He’s just a blocker and would offer the team nothing better than what they already have. If they are going to use a pick on a late round flyer, go after a guy like Caleb Wilson who at least adds something as a legit receiving threat.
What would your draft strategy be for going after a tight end?