Cowboys: The Future Of Tight End Position Is Here

Alabama Crimson Tide tight end O.J. Howard. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports
Alabama Crimson Tide tight end O.J. Howard. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports /

The Dallas Cowboys have spent numerous premium picks over the last decade on tight ends that didn’t pan out, but now’s the time to look for the future.

Once Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten established himself as the future of the team’s tight end position, there was never a need to blow second-round selections on tight ends that were never going to work out long term.

The horrible trend of blowing precious resources on Witten backups like Anthony Fasano, Martellus Bennett and Gavin Escobar began 10 years ago next April.

Former Cowboys head coach Bill Parcells took Fasano out of Notre Dame in 2006 and just three years after having selected Witten, a clear starter for the team back then and right now. I didn’t understand the move back then and still don’t get it now.

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Then came Wade Phillips to succeed Parcells following quarterback Tony Romo‘s fumbled field goal attempt in the NFC Wild Card playoff game at Seattle. Coming off an inaugural 13-3 campaign that had the Cowboys thinking Super Bowl in 2008, Dallas drafted Bennett out of Texas A&M, a highly athletic and talented player that didn’t have things working upstairs very well. The Cowboys’ time with Bennett was short, especially for a second-round draft pick.

As though there was a dire need to try this experiment again, head-coaching apprentice Jason Garrett sat around and allowed the selection of Escobar, a receiving threat from San Diego State, in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft.

Let’s just say that during the Witten era, the Cowboys have never had much use for any other tight ends, at least not in the passing game. Dallas’ offense has generally operated the same as it did during the 1990s with Jay Novacek. The occasional pass might be thrown to a second tight end during a play featuring a ’12’ pack, but this has been rare.

Run-blocking tight ends are more than welcome, but a second-round selection isn’t required for that type of player.

But here we are in the year 2016, eventually the 14th season for Witten, a 10-time Pro Bowl selection and member of the 10,000 Receiving Yards Club. Witten is still playing at a high level, but like his quarterback in Romo, time is beginning to spell out the need for a future replacement.

I’m not certain that player is not on the roster right now.

The Cowboys have four tight ends at this time, rookie Geoff Swaim and James Hanna being the only two not yet mentioned.

The jury is still out on Swaim, a player who essentially sat out his first season with the Cowboys. He was active for four games and caught one pass for no yards. There’s much more to learn about this player, but ’16 almost certainly will provide more opportunities.

Hanna is an unrestricted free agent who’s just as likely to be playing elsewhere next season as he is to still be in Dallas. Cost will be everything concerning this four-year veteran who’s also had limited playing time and opportunity since being drafted in the sixth round of the 2012 NFL Draft.

Escobar enters a contract year in ’16 that should almost certainly be his final season with the Cowboys. Despite having obvious talent as a receiver, Escobar has done nothing to illustrate that he can be effective in the Dallas offense as a run blocker in addition to his pass catching ability – did I mention how ridiculous it was that the Cowboys made him a second-round selection?

At this point in time, the Cowboys probably need to be looking into a replacement for Witten, and unless the franchise is sure that Swaim is the future, and there’s no way they could be, expect some attention to be placed on tight ends in the 2016 NFL Draft in April.

This is what happens when you draft redundant positions in the wrong place and also don’t select ideal players.

No, the Cowboys have never utilized two tight ends as a central part of their offense – at least not that I can remember. This idea that ’12’ personnel is going to be frequent doesn’t look realistic, although anything is possible.

So, while the No.4 selection in the first round will not address this position, it’s possible that yet another second-round selection might be used on another tight end. While the Cowboys should certainly be handling other areas by the second round, history repeatedly shows that Dallas really likes backups at this point in the draft – except that this time the Cowboys need to be thinking sure-fire starter within the lifespan of a new prospect’s rookie contract.

In this case, a prospect like Hunter Henry of Arkansas – owner Jerry Jones could be all over this – or even O.J. Howard of Alabama – if the College Football Playoff hero declares for the draft – could be square on Dallas’ radar.

Next: Dallas Cowboys Free Agency: Who Is On The Radar

The pre-draft process will tell more and more about which tight end prospects will fit the Cowboys offense the best, but part of that question can only be answered by determining how long Witten is the undisputed starter for the Cowboys. Barring an extension on the two years remaining on his five-year extension signed in 2011, this doesn’t appear to be very long one way or the other.