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Position Focus: TE Spot Getting Thin With More Injuries
Some weeks back for DallasCowboys.com I wrote a piece of the process in which we drafted Jason Witten out of Tennessee. There have been guys that I am really proud that we were able to bring to this squad like DeMarcus Ware, Tony Romo, Miles Austin, and Jay Ratliff but the player I am most proud of is Witten. Jason Witten has become everything you could have dreamed of as a scout. I am just not talking about the multiple Pro Bowls but what he has become as a player. Witten is not just a tight end that catches the ball underneath and gain a few yards up the field. Witten is a mismatch weapon that commands the same respect that teams give Miles Austin and Dez Bryant. When you studied the Cowboys and Patriots game from last season, the first thing you noticed that Bill Belichick was not going to allow Jason Witten to control this game down the field. Belichick had coverage underneath and in the back end to try and take him out of the game. Witten did manage four catches and one touchdown but he didn’t have the type of game that we had come to expect from Witten. When I talk about a mismatch player, Witten’s size and up the field speed make it difficult for linebackers to have to deal with him but he is problematic to defensive backs because he is able to be physical down the field to buy himself space. Witten is smart because he knows how to use his body to get open, he knows how to lean into a defender and push off, he did it to Bruce Carter during practice on Friday and all Carter could do was put his hands in the air after the reception. Where Witten has gotten better in his career is as a blocker. He isn’t the true “Y” type of inline blocker but he can tie up his man and he does play with quickness to work to get in position. Witten learned from Bill Parcells that you have to play with either hand off the line to become a better blocker, its situations like that has allowed him to develop throughout his career.
John Phillips is the backup tight end and is in his second full season since recovering from his knee surgery. Phillips has done a much better job in his conditioning and movement since suffering the injury. Phillips is a solid route runner with dependable hands. Jason Garrett has created plays in the red zone to take advantage of his skill with the throw back screens which he ran for a touchdown against the Giants in 2011. Phillips is like Witten in that he is not going to hammer you off the line but shield and get in the way. Like him more when he can be on the edge or the wing and work from there. Can play some “H” or fullback but as we saw last season at fullback it really wasn’t his strong suit as a lead blocker. Doesn’t have the pop like a true fullback. He can sustain his block but he just isn’t going to get the movement at the point like others.
Rookie James Hanna was drafted in the sixth round of the 2012 NFL Draft out of Oklahoma. What I noticed first about Hanna when studying his college game is how athletic he is with the ball in his hands. He is working hard in this camp to be a better route runner because he can get up the field. Has the ability to make some really nice plays with his hands but will drop some easy passes too. Has gotten more consistent in camp working with John Garrett. Tries to work his technique as a run blocker. There are times where you see the ball get to the edge with the backs and it’s to his side. Has shown more as a blocker in this camp than he did at Oklahoma. His better blocks in college were usually on the move more than inline. Cowboys are trying him both on the line and from the wing. Has taken a ton of reps in camp and I have seen a little improvement each day but there still is plenty of areas he can improve on.
Andrew Szczerba is an undrafted rookie from Penn State that has not looked bad at all in his short career with the Cowboys. Has been asked to play several different roles and has yet to look out of place. In the mold of the other tight ends that he is not some big ice wagon going up the field. There is some smoothness to his game. Like the way he is able to extend his hands from his body to make catches going away. Like the ability his has shown running routes and adjusting on the move. Works hard as a blocker but more of a shield type. Has not been a throw away or just a camp body here, you do see he has ability and he works hard while on the field. Club will most likely just keep three so he is looking at a practice squad spot now unless Hanna completely falls on his face which right now, he hasn’t. Club will try and develop him but there is a lot to work with there.
Overall it’s a nice group but the closes player to a true on the line tight end is Witten. In some of my visits with front office staff before the draft there was some talk about trying to find a blocking tight end to bring in so that still might be in the cards once final cuts take place at the end of camp. John Garrett is a good coach and I have enjoyed watching him work with this group. They play with technique to match their skill level and he deserves a lot of credit for that. He really does a nice job of getting the most out of his players on a daily basis and really that is all you can ask for.