Exciting new names and accomplished returning faces are leading to a lot of optimism about the Dallas Cowboys whenever they actually get to take the field. Almost every place on the roster, established performers, savvy free agent acquisitions, and one of the most impressive rookie classes on paper in a long time have us eagerly looking forward to camp battles and, of course, the games themselves. Even formerly settled jobs like fullback and kicker pique our interest. However, there is one position that has only one good player, albeit a little less proven than we like, a very uncertain backup, and no notable new additions at all. That is tight end.
Everyone has Blake Jarwin written in ink as the starter, which only makes sense. He is the only TE on the roster that has any real production to his credit, and those numbers were likely depressed by having spent all but the 2018 season behind Jason Witten on the depth chart. Filling out the room is Cowboys veteran backup Dalton Schultz, who had exactly one reception last season, free agent Blake Bell and his 38 career catches over five years, including just eight last season, and a couple of camp hopefuls in Cole Hikutini and UDFA Sean McKeon. Of that group, only Bell has shown much as a run-blocking entity in the NFL.
Ain’t it great?
Here’s the reasoning behind that three word assessment. Tight end was a major part of the offensive scheme during the Jason Garrett regime, which not only led to Witten’s impressive numbers over his career, but the eagerness to re-sign him after his year in broadcasting didn’t go so well. It was part and parcel of the conservative nature Garrett displayed so often. His run-first approach dictated that the TE would be blocking a lot, and the main role in the passing game was as a safety valve, or at least it was on many plays. There’s a new boss in town, and Mike McCarthy has already signaled that his plan, and OC Kellen Moore’s, will rely on the traditional tight end role much less.
That means the tight end will be used more as a big slot receiver, and the offense will feature the 11 personnel group. That last thing was true in Garrett’s offense, but now the dial is going to be turned up. All the way to 11, if you insist on aging pop culture references. This is great news for Dak Prescott and the passing game. Jarwin’s ability as a receiver is fairly well established, and should be able to blossom now. He’s a target that can do much more than give the quarterback an outlet when the wide receivers are covered. Some of his best highlights have been going straight down the seam and using his size and skill to pull the ball in for big gains.
Opportunities may also be opened up for using players like Tony Pollard in the slot by not putting a TE on the field at all. Pollard is exciting when he gets a chance to work, and he was generally underused his rookie season. Despite that, he was clearly the most productive member of his draft class for Dallas.
Another player who should benefit from this development is Ezekiel Elliott. There is a convincing argument that the best way to open up the running lanes is to spread the defense out with three or even four wide receivers, drawing more defenders deep and making it easier for the offensive line to open up holes, and the running back to see and exploit them. Elliott has good vision, and he feasts on that green space.
This also signals a great reduction in multiple tight end sets, which have the opposite effect. That lets the defense load up the box. Now we hope to see far fewer cases of handing the ball off and Elliott trying to fight for yardage in heavy traffic around the line of scrimmage.
Addition by subtraction is the idea here. The use of a tight end to block yields less benefit than the modern role of being a very large receiver. When Witten was on the field, he ate up a lot of targets but did not yield a lot of yardage, particularly after the catch. In his latter years, that too often consisted of just how far forward he could fall. And while he was solid as a blocker, he was not exactly outstanding, so that was not a good use of having him on the field in many cases.
This looks very much like an analytics-driven decision. If you buy into the use of numbers, stats, and play analysis, that will please you. If not, well, just hope that the team is onto something here.
Expect the role of the tight end to be both reduced and more effective under McCarthy and Moore. It may well lead to some very good things.