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Post OTAs Cowboys position review: Tight ends

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The return of Jason Witten is big, but he is not the whole story.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys-Minicamp
OK, he never used to look scary . . .
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

While we wait for training camp to get underway, we’re taking a look at all the position groups for the Dallas Cowboys, with the focus on whether the team was successful in improving during the offseason. You can find the links for the earlier parts of this series at the end of this one. In today’s exciting chapter, we look into the tight ends.

That of course takes us straight to the most surprising story of the 2019 offseason for Dallas, the un-retirement and re-signing of Jason Witten. While there were some who had an inkling that the once and present Cowboys great was seriously considering a return to the field, most of us were truly gob-smacked when it was announced. The first, emotional reaction was that it had to be a good thing. Witten is a true legend for the team. He was never an athletic freak with the measurables, but he schooled many defenders with his craftiness and well-honed route skills. In his two seasons playing with Dak Prescott, he demonstrated that he was still a valuable safety valve/security blanket receiver.

Then some reality set in. Witten is now 37, which is like being 61 for those of us in normal lines of work. And he has already played 15 seasons in the brutal environment of the NFL. It was only reasonable to wonder if he truly had anything left in the tank. There was at least the possibility that he could be the dreaded “progress stopper” for the much younger, less worn Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz.

However, Witten is also one of the most durable players ever to suit up in the league. After getting seven starts his rookie season, he went on to start all but two of the games in the next fourteen campaigns, and didn’t miss a start for an incredible eleven straight years before his retirement in 2017. Now he has had a year to heal and rest up, and it looks like it has done nothing but good for him. As Calvin Watkins observed in a recap of the minicamp practices at The Athletic:

Jason Witten looked fabulous on Day 1. Witten caught passes on consecutive plays in a two-minute drill, one on his custom Y-option route and another on a deep out route. After he made the catch, Witten looked up at reporters watching from the seats at the Ford Center and yelled, “Let’s go!” Witten dismisses the notion he’s going to play 20 to 25 snaps. Which isn’t to say he’ll be on the field every down; he’ll probably sit when the Cowboys go with a faster lineup. But if the Cowboys have, say, 60 offensive snaps, expect Witten to play 40 to 45.

That is great news. It is good to have an outside, reasonably objective observer validate what the team clearly sees with him. And his teammates are seeing it too, including another long-tenured veteran. (Click for the Witten observations, and stay for another sneak peek at what the new offense may bring.)

That also speaks to the intangible of Witten’s leadership, and he has that in tons. That is important on a roster that, outside of him, Sean Lee, and L.P. Ladouceur, is still very young. Witten’s work ethic is unsurpassed, and as Lee said, he is not going to stand quietly by if he sees some of the young ‘uns loafing. And look at that picture heading this article. This is the first time Witten has just flat looked like someone you would never want to mess with. Yeah, it is partly due to him being follically challenged, but it also reeks of a bad attitude, in a totally good way.

His performance as part of the MNF broadcasts may have been, shall we say, a bit disappointing. But now there is a real possibility that it has given Witten a new lease on his football life. If he carries the strong start into the regular season, then the tight end position has had a major upgrade.

Meanwhile, the two players that Witten is likely going to be taking quite a few snaps from are back, and it is worth noting that coming into last season, they had basically no catches between them at the NFL level. They combined for 39 catches last year (still not a lot) and Jarwin had three touchdowns. But clearly they had some progress in the passing game, and gained a lot more experience as blockers. Both should continue to grow, even with limited time on the field. They certainly should be better when they are called on to contribute. And with the expected increased emphasis on the long pass, there may be times Kellen Moore puts one or even both of them on the field where they can help stretch things out. It even opens up the possibility of using those hated “heavy” offensive sets as passing opportunities. Oh, the ways to innovate just seem endless.

That expected growth is another way that the tight end group may be stronger, even if the team elects to go short there and only carry three on the 53-man roster.

Doing so has gotten a bit more likely with the announcement of a one-game suspension for Rico Gathers. That penalty is another case of the inconsistencies of the NFL discipline process, since the infraction that drew the suspension happened before the start of the 2018 season. But leaving that discussion for another time, there is still the fact that Gathers has not shown much at all in games. Some of that may be due to a lack of opportunity, as he has not seen many snaps at all so far with the Cowboys. While that may be partly because of the well-documented staid nature of the offense the past couple of years, it also may have been driven by what the coaches were, or more likely weren’t, seeing in practice. In any case, Gathers faces a real uphill battle to make the team this time around.

The Cowboys have one other tight end on the roster for now, Codey McElroy. It may be a disservice to him, but he certainly looks like a camp body at this time.

But the trio of players who are nearly a lock to make the 53 are a much stronger group than the team had for last season. That group included the now-departed Geoff Swaim, who had 26 catches and a touchdown before being lost to injury - but no one should argue that Witten does not bring more to the table.

His return to the Cowboys alone makes the tight end position better. Add in a year’s development for Jarwin and Schultz, and this is one more place the team clearly improved this offseason.


Here are the links to the earlier parts of this series.

Quarterbacks

Running backs