While many fans were speculating that Jason Witten might retire and transition into a coaching role with the Cowboys, Mike McCarthy seemingly shut the door on that theory on Wednesday with the decision to hire Lunda Wells as their new tight ends coach. Wells comes over from the Giants, where he spent the last eight years in various roles.
At just 36 years of age, Wells doesn’t come with a very well-known reputation. He began coaching when he was just 25 years old as an assistant offensive line coach for the LSU Tigers. After two years assisting with the offensive line, Wells was moved to an assistant special teams coach. He did this for two more years before he was hired to Tom Coughlin’s Giants as an offensive assistant in 2012.
After one year, Wells got a promotion to assistant offensive line coach after his predecessor, Matt Rhule, got the head coaching gig at Temple University. Wells would assist with the Giants offensive line until the 2017 season when then head coach Ben McAdoo (a disciple of McCarthy) was fired. New head coach Pat Shurmur reassigned Wells to coach the tight ends.
And that’s where we find Wells now. Not a whole lot of information to go off of. A look at how players performed under Wells paints an even more curious picture. While at LSU, Wells only saw two players under his watch get drafted; Herman Johnson was a fifth-round pick who was out of the league in two years, and Joe Barksdale was a third-round pick who played on four different teams throughout his eight-year career and spent 2019 unsigned.
When Wells arrived in New York, he already had some established offensive linemen to work with, but four young linemen joined the team under his tenure as assistant offensive line coach: Ereck Flowers, Bobby Hart, Justin Pugh, and Weston Richburg.
Flowers is perhaps the most recognizable of those names, as he was effectively a human turnstile and got cut before his rookie deal even ended; as a former ninth overall draft pick, it’s unclear whether he was just a big draft day whiff or if his coaches in New York failed to develop him.
Beyond Flowers, Hart was a seventh-round pick the same year Flowers was drafted. He played right tackle for three years but was cut after consistently declining play and spent 2019 with the league-worst Bengals.
Pugh was another first-round pick for the Giants who initially started at right tackle and was eventually moved to left guard. He finished his first year at guard rated in the top ten at his position by Pro Football Focus, but injuries afterwards led to a rapid decline in play. He’s spent the last two seasons in Arizona, where poor pass protection has been a constant both years.
Richburg is the one big success story from these four, and quickly cemented himself as one of the top centers in the league. However, he bolted for the 49ers once his rookie contract was up.
So Wells has a fairly iffy record when it comes to developing offensive linemen, although it’s unclear how much can be attributed to him given he was only the assistant offensive line coach. But how have things gone in Wells’ two years as the tight ends coach?
When Wells took over the position for the 2018 season, he had Evan Engram coming off an impressive rookie year catching the ball. With new head coach Pat Shurmur bringing his West Coast offense to New York, Engram was destined to see an increase in usage. Unfortunately, the tight end got hurt and only played in 11 games, but he showed a bit of a jump. He finished with 45 catches for 577 yards and three touchdowns. Nothing that blows you away, but Engram did drastically improve his yards per reception (jumped from 11.3 to 12.8) and catch rate (went from 55.7% to 70.3%).
Going into 2019, Engram had also spent time with Wells working on blocking techniques, and the athletic tight end showed some improvement in that department before injuries once again struck, this time limiting him to eight games. In his place, rookie Kaden Smith stepped up in a big way.
Smith started the final six games of the year and finished with 30 catches for 267 yards and three touchdowns. If we extrapolate that out to a full season, just to get an idea of how good his numbers were, Smith would’ve had 80 catches for 712 yards and eight touchdowns. That’s more productivity than any other rookie tight end in 2019, and more than any tight end in Dallas. Keeping in mind that Smith was the 12th tight end drafted in 2019, his impressive production as a rookie seems to point to Wells’ ability to develop tight ends.
Perhaps Wells just wasn’t cut out to work with offensive linemen, or perhaps he didn’t have much influence as an assistant, but an admittedly small sample size of work with tight ends seems more promising as he comes to Dallas. And for what it’s worth, Giants writers characterized Wells’ departure as a big hit to the coaching staff under new head coach Joe Judge:
One of the more highly thought of members of Shurmur’s coaching staff, Wells’ defection comes as a bit of a surprise, given the success of the position group he oversaw. Prior to taking over tight ends, Wells was the Giants’ assistant offensive line coach from 2013-17.
Engram’s blocking improved substantially under Wells last season, before Engram’s season was cut short by a Lisfranc sprain.
Giants new head coach Joe Judge must now fill the hole left behind by Wells, coaching a position that had previously been integral to the Giants’ passing offense.
Wells will have his hands full in Dallas. Witten might not be returning and Blake Jarwin’s contract is up, leaving just Dalton Schultz locked in so far. Regardless of who’s on the team next year, Wells will be responsible for getting more production out of a group that’s underwhelmed the last two years.