Dallas Cowboys: Future of the tight end position


Not that I mean to get in the way of training camp excitement or anything, but has anybody wondered exactly what the future of the Dallas Cowboys tight end position is?

Probably not.

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Granted, future Hall of Fame candidate Jason Witten continues to play at a championship level, a wily veteran who displays both excellent receiving skills as well as run blocking ability, both of which should be on full display once again in 2015.

At just 33 years-old as of May, Witten is remarkably heading into his 13th season with the Cowboys, the same team that drafted him in the third round of the 2003 NFL Draft. The former star from University of Tennessee was but 20 years-old when drafted in 2003.

One could say that Witten has served the exact same role for quarterback Tony Romo as Jay Novacek once did for Troy Aikman. Witten obviously has done it much longer and yet he still has yet to see a Super Bowl during his career.

Perhaps this is the year that this void is filled – and perhaps it is not.

The question I ponder is what exactly Dallas does in the event that Witten goes down with an injury or, heaven forbid, he simply decides to retire. As unlikely as either of those scenarios sound, one or the other could certainly happen sooner than later.

Looking at the Cowboys roster as it sits right now, there seems to be a reasonable comfort zone at the position with third-year veteran Gavin Escobar and fourth-year veteran James Hanna backing up Witten. Two rookies, Geoff Swaim of University of Texas and Ray Hamilton of University of Iowa, round out the depth chart.

But what if things got sticky and Witten couldn’t go.

Still feel good about the combination of Escobar and Hanna?

The horrible luck Dallas has had in drafting alleged Witten successors, or partners, over the last decade is pretty well documented. Be it second-round disappointments like Anthony Fasano in 2006, Martellus Bennett in 2008 or yet-to-be defined Escobar in 2013, the Cowboys haven’t acquired anybody even close to pushing Witten’s starting job.

These facts beg the question of why owner and general manager Jerry Jones was signing off on repeated selections at this position while knowing full and well that he wouldn’t be getting starter with that kind of premium selection.

In fact, Jones’ problems with tight ends go all the way back to the 1990s, just as the Super Bowl era of that decade was winding down.

Novacek’s back issues pretty much ended his career following a Cowboys victory in Super Bowl XXX in early 1996. The year before, the Cowboys tried to prepare for the future at tight end by selecting Eric Bjornson from University of Washington in the fourth round of the 1995 NFL Draft.

Well, like each of those previously mentioned second-round tight ends that never earned a second contract with the Cowboys, Bjornson didn’t either.

Remember David LaFluer, the 6’7” tight end drafted out of Louisiana State University in the first round of the 1997 NFL Draft?

If not, both LaFluer and Bjornson were effectively done in the NFL by the turn of the millennium.

So much for ringing in the new century at tight end, right? This didn’t happen until Witten showed up a few years later.

Escobar reminds me of Bjornson in that he’s a tallish receiving target that can’t do much else. Discouraging, to some extent, is the fact that Escobar’s two-year total of receptions (18) is already blown away by Bjornson’s tally of 55 catches during his first two years – his rookie year saw just seven.

Yes, Escobar needs to have a breakout season, and perhaps this is the year, what with a likely return to heavier passing due to the perceived limitations of the Dallas backfield heading into training camp. In other words, if Romo’s passing attempts are jacked back up like in seasons prior to 2014, Escobar should see closer to 40 catches or more.

Either way, who’s the starting end for the future?

Is that player on the roster right now?

With training camp just underway, perhaps that answer will emerge soon.

If not, keep your fingers crossed that Witten still has another season or two – or thee – in which Dallas can still search out the next franchise tight end for America’s Team.

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