The Dallas Cowboys used the 186th pick in the 2012 NFL Draft this past April to select James Hanna out of the University of Oklahoma. When players are picked that late in the draft, teams are not expecting to find a great player, but are at this point looking for players that possess certain attributes that can be utilized at the next level. For Hanna, the attributes he displayed most prominently were speed (ran a 4.49 40yd-dash prior to the draft) and pass catching ability.
The two tight-ends on the roster at the time of the draft were future hall of famer Jason Witten, and John Phillips. Phillips was a sixth round draft pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. He is more of blocking tight end, although he has shown some ability in the passing game. Phillips will be an unrestricted free agent at the conclusion of the 2012 NFL season.
Prior to the draft this past April, the Cowboys had lost their 2nd string tight end on a free agent defection to the Cowboy’s division rival, the New York Giants. Bennett originally came to the Dallas Cowboys out of the 2008 NFL Draft with the 61st overall selection (late second round). He was seen at the time as a very intriguing athlete who possessed a combination of size, speed, blocking and pass catching ability. He also was a former basketball player in college for two seasons at Texas A&M. Basketball players have in the last decade became a fertile ground for where scouts have started looking for tight end prospects. Former basketball players that cannot make it to the NBA have proven to have great potential at the tight end position, as was first headlined with Tony Gonzalez (Kansas City & Atlanta) and later Antonio Gates (San Diego).
Unfortunately for the Cowboys, they never used Bennett correctly and never involved him enough to get any kind of a rthym going in the offense. His tenure in Dallas was marked as being a very good blocker, and one who would sometime make plays in the passing game. Here are some of his stats for his four seasons with the Cowboys (2008-2011) and his first 14 games with the Giants (2012).
Year Rec Targets Yards Touchdowns
2008 20 28 283 4
2009 15 30 159 0
2010 33 48 260 0
2011 17 26 144 0
Dallas Totals 85 132 846 4
2012 (NYG) 50 78 584 5
By looking at the numbers, Bennett’s production in 14 games with the Giants is not far away from the numbers he put up in an entire four season stint in Dallas. Utilizing two tight ends in the offense is becoming a trend in the NFL, and will only to continue to rise in the upcoming seasons. The New England Patriots are a great example of the different looks and problems this kind of set can cause defenses. Rob Gronkowski is dominant as a blocking and pass catching tight end. Aaron Hernandez is more known to exploit defenses in the passing game. It is not uncommon at all for both to have touchdown receptions in the same game, and both to be over 50 yards receiving and usually both are well over that. The Cowboys could have used this formula with Witten and Bennett, but the Cowboys have not shown the creativity in their offense to employ this strategy and create packages to utilize this type of personnel. If the defense has to pay attention to tight ends with this ability, it frees the wide receivers to find open spots on the defense. It also helps the rushing attack as the defense can’t just focus on stopping the run, thus causing the opposing defense to be off balance.
With the selection of Hanna, the Cowboys now have a second chance to bring this dimension into the offense after not taking advantage of Bennett. After watching and learning in practice for much of the season, Tony Romo has targeted Hanna twice in each of the last two games. He caught one of the two targets in Cincinnati for three yards. Hanna caught both of his targets last weekend against the Steelers for a total of 45 yards.
With the injury situation with Dez Bryant’s index finger, the time is now for Hanna’s role to increase in the passing game. Garrett has not shown an aptitude to adjust and show creativity, however, the injury situation on this team may force his hand. With the defense having suffered so many season ending injuries that has over half of the opening day defensive starters on the injured reserve, Garrett will have to lean on his offense to lead the way if there is to be any hope of reaching the postseason. If the Cowboys could reach the postseason, again it will be the offense that leads the way.
James Hanna could be a weapon the Cowboys unleash as there is not a lot of tape on him yet. The Cowboys also have not been known to put two tight ends in the passing game with any kind of consistency. With the Cowboys having to get creative and find guys to fill the holes in the defense, Hanna could be an intriguing option down the last few games that could really help the Cowboy’s fortunes going forward on the offensive side of the ball.
Follow Craig Cortemeglia on Twitter at @ccortemegliaTLH