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Escobar’s Progress The Big Issue For Dallas Tight Ends

Posted Jan 13, 2014


(Editor's Note: This is the sixth of an 11-part series analyzing every position on the Cowboys roster, providing a quick look back before addressing the needs of each spot on the field and how it can be improved heading into the 2014 season. Today we examine the tight ends).

Pressing Matters: The biggest question about the tight ends going into 2014 is undoubtedly “Just what have the Cowboys committed to in second-round pick Gavin Escobar?”

Escobar’s selection in the second round of last spring’s draft raised more than a few eyebrows – especially with eight-time Pro Bowler Jason Witten coming off a career year. The rationale at the time was an added emphasis on multi-tight end sets and getting multiple playmakers involved at the position. 

It didn’t necessarily work out that way, as Escobar finished with just nine receptions for 134 yards and two touchdowns. It’s worth pointing out, though, that 64 of those yards and Escobar’s best play of the season – the leaping, flipping 17-yard touchdown catch in the season finale against Philadelphia – came in the last month of the year.

Witten’s reliability as an offensive weapon took plenty of pressure off the rookie in his first season. But with a full offseason to work and improve, there will be plenty of attention paid to whether the Cowboys were smart to select Escobar.

2013 Evaluation: It seemed like a quiet year for the Dallas tight ends, but it was hardly an unproductive one.

Following up his 110-catch, 1,039-yard season in 2012, it seemed at times like Witten had dropped off in 2013. Truth be told his 73-catch, 851-yard 2013 season was right in line with his career average of 79 catches and 890 yards per year.

It’s true that plenty of teams were successful in limiting the Pro Bowler. Witten was held to fewer than 50 yards in nine games, and he was held without a touchdown in three straight games two separate times during the season.

That said, he still turned in several dominant outings, with huge days against Denver and Minnesota, as well as a monstrous 12-catch, 135-yard night in the season-ending loss to the Eagles. Witten’s touchdown tally of eight was the second-best of his career, behind only 2010’s nine-touchdown campaign.

As mentioned, Escobar showed a few flashes – the diving touchdown against the Eagles, a leaping 25-yard catch against Chicago. You’d typically like to see more than nine catches for a second round pick, however. Few will judge Escobar based on his rookie campaign, but the expectations will increase in 2014, when he is more accustomed to the offense and the league.

James Hanna caught more balls in 2013 than in 2012, but for fewer yards. He showed up a few times in the season, with four catches for 20 yards against Kansas City and a big 21-yard catch against Minnesota. He was far from a factor in the offense, though, and his role seems more likely to be as a blocker with the addition of Escobar as a receiving threat.

Upgrades Needed: The idea of using 12-personnel seemed to fall by the wayside as the Cowboys chased a playoff spot last season. The team brought in fullback Tyler Clutts and used a lot of three-receiver sets, rather than the two and three-tight end sets they used in September and October. 

Regardless of how they go forward, it’s hard to imagine the Cowboys “upgrading” the tight end spot. Witten is still playing at a strong level, and Escobar and Hanna are under contract for the next few years as the youthful depth.

It’s possible the Cowboys will bring in another tight end or two, via free agency or the draft. But it would likely not be a sizable investment, as the addition would be primarily as a fourth tight end for blocking and the like.

 By The Numbers:

  • Witten’s average of 11.7 yards per catch in 2013 is the fourth-best average of his career, behind the three consecutive seasons of 2006, 2007 and 2008.
  • Escobar and Hanna were targeted the same number of times, 15, on the season.
  • Three of Escobar’s nine catches went for 20 or more yards, and seven of the nine went for first downs.
  • Witten finished fifth among tight ends in yardage this season, behind Jimmy Graham, Jordan Cameron, Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez.
  • Graham, Vernon Davis and Julius Thomas all finished with double-digit touchdowns among tight ends. Gonzalez and Witten finished tied for fourth with eight.
  • All three Cowboys tight ends recorded at least one catch in three games this season – Kansas City, Denver and Chicago. The team went 0-3 in those games.
  • Witten’s longest reception of the season went for 34 yards in the loss to Philadelphia. That’s tied with 2005 as the shortest season-long of his career. The biggest gain of his career was a 69-yarder against Washington in 2009.

The Scout’s Eye takes a look at the Tight Ends:

There was plenty made before the season how we would see this Cowboys offense evolve into a scheme that would utilize its tight ends more in a “12” personnel package. With Jason Witten, James Hanna and the drafting of Gavin Escobar at the time, that approach made a great deal of sense. (Read more here)

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