With training camp right around the corner, DallasCowboys.com is taking a look at the outlook of each position group for the home team in a seven-part series, continuing Thursday with the tight end position.
Big Issue: Once again, it's nice to have some positions on the field where the biggest concern is after the starting spot. Some could be alarmed about Jason Witten's seven-year streak of consecutive Pro Bowls coming to an end last season, but he still led the team in both catches (79) and receiving yards (942) and was just an alternate to Tony Gonzalez and high-flying Jimmy Graham of the Saints. Witten should be fine but the backup spots are question marks after the departure of Martellus Bennett, who left for the Giants in free agency in what seemed to be a mutual breakup for both sides. By not signing a free agent veteran and only drafting James Hanna in the sixth round, it appears this team is heavily counting on John Phillips to handle the load as the backup. Phillips has shown versatility as a blocker, playing some at fullback last year, and even in the passing game at times. Bennett will be missed as a blocker at the line of scrimmage, an area where Phillips must prevent any sort of drop-off.
At tight end, John Phillips will be the two and James Hanna the three. As mentioned before, Witten will once again be the lead dog in the sled. It's an interesting group because you don't have a dominant blocker at the point of attack and, by the way, don't tell me that Martellus Bennett was that guy. Bennett played much better down the stretch but there were plenty of times where he was stalemated or beaten on the play. What we need to watch in camp is the development of James Hanna as a pass catcher. There were times in Oklahoma game film where he would make circus catches then drop a ball thrown at the middle of his chest with no one around him. Hanna has to be better than just a 50/50 catcher in this offense because he is not the type of player that you can line up at "Y" and run the ball behind him. He needs to be on the move to be an effective blocker. John Phillips looks like he is moving around better two years removed from the knee surgery, he is playing with more confidence in his game. - Bryan Broaddus
Rookie Watch: From an athleticism standpoint, James Hanna has the tools to be a good NFL tight end. At 6-4, 252 and running in the 4.5 range, Hanna certainly looks the part. The next and most important question is can he physically get the job done. His hands were a question mark coming into the draft and he wasn't that consistent catching the ball early in the OTAs. He looked more comfortable later in the summer, as most rookies tend to do. He'll also have to prove himself as a blocker, but he definitely has the size to hold his own.
Don't Forget About …Rookie free agent Andrew Szczerba seemed to make at least one nice catch in every practice this summer. The 6-6, 256-pound rookie from Penn State might have a hard time beating out sixth-round pick James Hanna, but it wouldn't be a huge upset. It'll likely come down to his blocking and special teams performance but from a tight end standpoint, Szczerba could be a little ahead of Hanna in the passing game.
Jason Witten – Looking to get back to that Pro Bowl level again. That'll likely come if the team turns things around as well. Just turned 30 and doesn't appear to be slowing down.
John Phillips – This is a big opportunity for him. The Cowboys are letting Phillips win the No. 2 spot. They'll likely have their eyes peeled on available TEs around the league but for now, Phillips is the clear backup.
John Nalbone – Claimed off waivers from the Seahawks this summer. Let's see if this player from Monmouth can perform like the other one.
James Hanna – Sixth-round pick from Oklahoma with a lot of athletic ability. He seemed to get the hang of things as the summer went on. Andrew Szczerba – Has good hands and a good feel for the offense. Still fighting an uphill battle to make the team. Must out-perform Hanna to have a shot.