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Tight end will be crucial in Mike McCarthy’s Cowboys offense

It will pay to have a difference-maker at the tight end position for Dallas.

New York Giants v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Recently, I made an argument for why the tight end position should be considered undervalued in the NFL right now, and why the Cowboys wouldn’t be committing a blunder if they drafted one in the first round this year. As with just about any non-quarterback position, though, the value of the tight end can be greatly shaped by the scheme that each team runs on offense.

That’s why it’s important to look at the offense the Cowboys will be operating in 2023 to determine how valuable tight ends will actually end up being. And it’s hard to really know exactly what to expect with Brian Schottenheimer the new offensive coordinator and Mike McCarthy calling plays, but both coaches have lengthy enough résumés to make an educated guess. And that guess is that the tight end position will be a big part of the offense.

Philosophically speaking, McCarthy is a West Coast offense guy, and always has been. The West Coast offense was birthed in Cincinnati by Bengals head coach Paul Brown and his offensive coordinator, Bill Walsh, in the 60’s and early 70’s. It didn’t become widely popular until Walsh became the 49ers head coach, winning three Super Bowls throughout the 80’s.

The West Coast offense was known for being wildly pass happy at the time, and using quick, horizontal passing concepts to stretch a defense to the sidelines before taking a well-timed shot deep. It’s also known for some very wordy play calls, due to the language of the scheme. The most succinct way to describe the philosophy of the West Coast offense is that the quarterback should either be throwing a touchdown or a check-down.

This is where the tight end comes into play, especially for McCarthy. There are a ton of offensive coaches who descend from the West Coast School of Offense, and each have their own unique variations. McCarthy is one of a handful who realized in the early 2000’s, when players such as Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, and Jason Witten were lighting up defenses, that the tight end can be a dangerous weapon.

For much of his time in Green Bay, McCarthy was blessed with a talented stable of receivers that included the likes of Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, James Jones, and Davante Adams. Even with all that talent, McCarthy utilized tight ends in a very specific way in the passing game, elevating their role from merely being a safety blanket option, and over time he developed a type.

Here’s a breakdown of the most significant tight ends the Packers brought in during McCarthy’s tenure, taking a look at their usage in the passing game and their physical profile coming into the league, using the Relative Athletic Score (RAS) from their respective draft classes:

Mike McCarthy’s Tight Ends in Green Bay

Yards per Route Run YAC per Reception Average Depth of Target Height Weight RAS
Yards per Route Run YAC per Reception Average Depth of Target Height Weight RAS
Donald Lee 1.07 4.6 6.8 6'4" 248 8.08
Jermichael Finley 1.82 5.5 9.4 6'5" 247 6.42
Richard Rodgers 1.05 3.7 7.8 6'4" 257 4.57
Jared Cook 1.91 4.1 11.4 6'5" 250 9.07
Martellus Bennett 1.22 5.7 5.6 6'6" 275 8.57
Jimmy Graham 1.14 4.7 9.7 6'7" 259 9.64
Robert Tonyan 1.75 3 14.6 6'5" 240 8.84

Donald Lee was already on the roster when McCarthy arrived in Green Bay, but his usage served as an early template for that offense. Jermichael Finley was a consistent producer for quite a while in McCarthy’s offenses, and had established himself as one of the league’s top tight ends before a spinal cord injury led to his retirement. That resulted in Richard Rodgers, a backup at the time, stepping into the role for a time. Later on, Green Bay targeted veterans who fit the mold of what McCarthy was looking for in Jared Cook, Martellus Bennett, and Jimmy Graham - some worked out much better than others - while going after Robert Tonyan as an undrafted free agent.

While there are some outliers on this list, there is a clear type that McCarthy prefers here. A McCarthy tight end will generally be around 6’4” or 6’5”, weigh between 245 and 260 pounds, and have an elite (80th percentile or higher) RAS. This allows McCarthy to still use his tight ends in a more traditional blocking role, but they have the athleticism to threaten defenses down the seam while also producing yards after the catch.

For comparison’s sake, Dalton Schultz meets the height (6’5”) and weight (255 pounds) markers but his 7.09 RAS fell below the athletic requirements. The same is true of Jake Ferguson (6’5”, 250 pounds, 6.77 RAS) while Peyton Hendershot has an elite RAS but is barely within the size threshold at 6’3” and 246 pounds.

McCarthy is not unique in this regard, either. Witten’s career got off to a hot start when Sean Payton, a fellow West Coast practitioner, was running the offense in Dallas. Payton then went to New Orleans, where Jimmy Graham become one of the most elite pass catching tight ends ever. Payton’s mentor, Jon Gruden, did something similar with Raiders tight end Darren Waller. Andy Reid hails from a similar branch of the West Coast tree as McCarthy, and he’s made Travis Kelce a permanent fixture of a sensational Chiefs passing attack.

The interesting wild card in all of this, for Dallas, is the presence of Schottenheimer. The Cowboys’ new offensive coordinator comes from the Air Coryell tree which, ironically, was the first West Coast offense before Walsh’s offense stole the moniker. The Air Coryell has produced a long list of productive tight ends as well; for starters, Witten continued to thrive in the system when Jason Garrett took over the offense. Other tight ends to thrive in the system include Antonio Gates, Jay Novacek, Vernon Davis, Greg Olsen, Jordan Cameron, Kyle Rudolph, and the original Air Coryell tight end, Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow.

As the Air Coryell system is designed to attack defenses vertically, it was the first offense to fully utilize tight ends as vertical passing threats, often sending them on routes that attacked a defense’s seam. Many of the aforementioned West Coast variants to feature productive tight ends - McCarthy included - essentially copied the Air Coryell’s tight end template to their own scheme.

With McCarthy taking the reins of the offense, as well as talking about a desire to get the ball out quicker in an effort to protect Dak Prescott from hits, it’s a good bet that the tight end position will become a critical piece of the equation. With Schottenheimer in the fold, that should mean an expanded use of tight ends stretching the field, as well as an added emphasis on players’ ability to produce after the catch. This lines up with the earlier reports that hinted the Cowboys are looking to add a tight end with “top five positional value” this offseason. Regardless of who suits up at tight end for the Cowboys this year, expect McCarthy to lean on him a lot.

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