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Battle Royal: With Escobar Injured, Writers Analyze TE Depth Behind Witten

(Editor's Note: With the draft now behind us, the Cowboys seemingly have a full roster for the offseason and training camp. There will likely be changes here and there but this group will mostly be intact when the real competition begins. So over the next two weeks, the writers of will break down some of the pressing position battles to keep an eye on. Today, we continue with the tight end position.)

What's the Issue:

For a 13th straight year, there's no tight end battle atop the Cowboys' depth chart.

Jason Witten turned 34 in early May and remains as reliable as ever, having led the offense in catches for the eighth time since entering the league in 2003. He started all 16 games for a 12th straight season and only missed seven offensive snaps the entire year.

The rotation behind Witten could shift a bit in 2016, at least to begin the season. Gavin Escobar is currently rehabbing from the torn Achilles he suffered in Week 15 against the Jets and could start the season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. James Hanna, who has split playing time with Escobar the last three seasons, re-signed to a three-year deal in March.

Behind Hanna and Escobar are a pair of young tight ends: Geoff Swaim, a 2015 seventh-round pick who played in four games, and Rico Gathers, a sixth-round pick making the transition from college basketball.

Don't Forget About:

Nick Eatman:While the focus remains on the backups, it doesn't mean there will be a lot of options for them. Witten has always made sure of that, by rarely coming off the field and never missing a game since 2003. Entering his 14th season, there aren't clear-cut signs that Witten is indeed slowing down. Sure, his receiving yards were just 713, but his catches have improved the last three years. He had 77 receptions in 2015, the most since his NFL record-breaking year of 110, the most by a tight end in league history. When you think about Witten maintaining his production despite having four different quarterbacks last year, it suggests he has at least a year or two more of keeping this production up. With Ezekiel Elliott now running the ball, expect more players at the line of scrimmage, which couple open up the middle, where Witten has roamed for years.

Rob Phillips: Splitting snaps nearly 50/50 with Escobar since 2013, James Hanna has 33 career catches and no touchdowns. He's praised often for his blocking contributions in the running game, but he's also a capable receiver who can separate downfield. (He ran a 4.49-second 40-yard dash at the 2012 NFL Combine). If Escobar's injury recovery extends into the season, it'll be interesting to see if Hanna's role expands.

David Helman:I can't help but think about the roster crunch when I consider the tight ends unit this year. It hasn't been unusual to see this team carry four tight ends in the recent past – in fact, in 2013, they started the season with five. But can they afford to go heavy this year? There's a crowded running back room to worry about, and it's a virtual certainty they'll carry three quarterbacks this season. We know Gavin Escobar will likely start the season on the PUP, but even without him, can the Cowboys afford to carry four tight ends or can they get away with just three? Given the amount of work Rico Gathers has to do, I'm not going to be surprised if the numbers make him a cut down day casualty. Ideally, Gathers can sign to the practice squad and leave the trio of Jason Witten, James Hanna and Geoff Swaim for the active roser.

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