When evaluating the tight end position and deciding how to improve upon the group’s 2011 results, the Dallas Cowboys only have one pressing decision to make this offseason. Do they bring back Martellus Bennett and assume the certain hefty raise in pay above his $771,250 salary cap expense of 2011? Or part ways after four years invested in the former Texas A&M standout to forge an alternate path. Since the purpose here is to assess the tight end group as a whole, the Marty B discussion is putting the cart before the horse. Let’s first analyze the tight ends already secured on the Cowboys 2012 payroll.
1) Jason Witten (2012 Salary cap expense = $5,841,000 / contract expires 2017)
The 2011 season was business as usual for the 7 time Pro Bowler, simply another brilliant season turned in by the ever consistent tight end and team leader. Once again he proved without a doubt his game and intangibles are worth every penny he collects in Dallas. On November 13, 2011, Jason Witten eclipsed Ozzie Newsome with the third most catches by a tight end in NFL History. In a season where wide receiver injuries were aplenty, Witten helped pick up the slack by leading all Cowboys receivers with 942 total receiving yards. In addition, 2011 was Jason’s fifth straight season surpassing the 900 yard receiving mark. Mr. Consistency played in every game for Dallas, logging a minimum of three catches each week. 2011 was simply Jason Witten being the Jason Witten Cowboys fans know and love, one of the best tight ends in the league and a surefire Hall of Fame selection.
All Dallas can ask of Witten in 2012 is to keep up the great work. However, I also think it may be time to see a second tight end spelling Jason a little more and assuming some of the second tier snaps. He’ll be entering his 10th season in 2012 at the age of 30. Since joining the team in 2003, Witten has remarkably only missed one game in 9 seasons. While that is great news for Dallas in the past, it also translates into his playing a very high amount of games before turning the big 3-0. While Witten is showing no signs of slowing down, it would be wise to be more aware of his longevity since he’s locked up as Cowboy through 2017. Slightly decreasing his amount of snaps in non-critical game situations next season may be the wisest way to extend high productivity further into his celebrated career.
2) John Phillips (2012 Salary cap expense = $584,562 / contract expires 2013)
What Cowboy fans associate John Phillips with most is the eye-opening potential he displayed during the summer of 2010. Before tearing his ACL in the first preseason game and wiping out his season, Phillips was a pleasant and unexpected surprise in camp. John was showing real talent for getting open and making big catches consistently that summer. He was leading all receivers in the first preseason game versus Cincinnati just prior to the knee tear. The unfortunate injury briefly took the air out of hopeful Dallas fans even though he was sitting at third on the depth chart.
Since returning to health, Phillips has shown some flashes of the player from the summer of 2010, but hasn’t duplicated quite the same splash. He did have 8 catches in the 2011 preseason, and added 15 catches for 101 yards and a TD in the regular season. Which notably is just two catches short of Marty B’s 2011 reception total and one TD above Bennett’s failure to reach the endzone. For his relatively low salary, Phillips is a worthy investment and contributor to the Cowboys tight end group. Dallas fans can certainly expect to see his snaps and numbers increase in 2012. After all it is a contract year for the youngster, so I’d expect him to make the most out of the opportunities given.
3) Martellus Bennett (2011 Salary cap expense = $771,250 / 2012 free agent)
Now onto the impending decision concerning the always mysterious Marty B. While Bennett’s 2011 salary cap hit was a reasonable $771,250, it’s wise to expect that number to eclipse the $1.2 million level in 2012, regardless of where he lands. Bennett is a very talented blocker and possesses the size and speed combination to be a good receiving threat. The questions have always centered around if he will ever make the jump to the next level through increased commitment and effort, and never concerning his apparent natural ability.
Without a doubt if Martellus were to ever dedicate himself to becoming a complete tight end, the sky is the limit for this impressive physical specimen. But from what he’s displayed in Dallas these past four years, I just don’t see that transformation ever happening. Like Bill Parcells always said, by the third year in the league players have already revealed what they have to offer. Maybe a change of scenery would help his dedication and focus, but my evaluation is already firm. Bennett is a proven excellent blocker, as well as a very gifted player with the ability to be a potent receiving threat. It seems he has the dedication to block well consistently, yet something is sorely missing beyond that aspect of his game. His desire to learn the little nuances of the tight end position and give the full effort needed to master them is noticeably lacking.
Final analysis and adjustments needed:
Martellus Bennett’s production during his four year stint in Dallas shows his value will not justify the price tag he will most likely command on the free agent market. There will be suitors who value his great size, ability, and potential; and no doubt someone will take a chance and pay the million plus needed. But in Dallas, his receiving ability was almost transparent in 2011, which basically defines his role as a blocking tight end since that’s where his strong production was noticeable. Going forward, John Phillips will provide enough of a receiving threat in substitution of Witten to assume the small amount of receptions Marty B collects. In 2011 he logged only two less receptions than Bennett, 43 fewer receiving yards, and one more touchdown. Not a significant disparity in receiving production whatsoever, yet the disparity in their 2012 salary cap expense will be much more consequential.
The Cowboys need to move on from Bennett and secure the services of a primary blocking tight end. These specialists can be found with far better value than Bennett will require. For example, let’s look at the four teams in the NFC divisional playoff round and the value of their blocking tight end. The Giants’ 2011 salary cap expense for Bear Pascoe, a 3rd year sixth round draft pick, was $525,000. The 49ers cap hit in 2011 for Justin Peelle, a veteran free agent acquisition in 2011, was $856,471. Andrew Quarless in Green Bay, a 5th round draft pick now entering his third season, will cost the Packers $535,606 against next year’s 2012 cap. And in New Orleans, John Gilmore a third year free agent pick-up in 2011, cost the Saints $575,000 against the 2011 cap. Three of these four elite NFC teams spent less than $600,000 to productively fill the primary blocking tight end position.
Since Bennett has now become more of a solid blocking tight end than a dual-threat player in Dallas, similar blocking production can be secured in 2012 at a much more salary cap friendly price. There are quality veteran blocking tight ends currently available on the free agent market, and a capable player can even be found in the new crop of undrafted rookie free agents that will sprout come April. Blocking tight end is not a position of high enough demand to be sought after much in the draft, thus leaving many capable rookies to be located and signed afterwards. Following the lead of the Giants, Saints, and 49ers, Dallas should set the maximum price paid for a blocking tight end around $600,000 to replace Bennett. And with that move, the $600,000+ sure to be saved against the cap by not pursuing Bennett can be allocated to a quality backup at another position.