(Editor's Note: This is the second 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 2015 season. Today we examine the tight ends.)
Pressing Matters:Nothing is extremely "pressing" with this position heading into 2015. Any veteran player entering his 13th season will likely get the question of how much longer he will play or how long can he continue to play at a high level. But for now, Jason Witten really doesn't show any signs of slowing down. Witten is coming off his 10th Pro Bowl selection. He'll enter the 2015 season as the starter with Gavin Escobar as the backup and James Hanna as the third tight end. All three players will remain under contract for this season, so this is one position that could be unchanged heading into next year.
2014 Evaluation: It's easy to look at Witten's numbers and call him a declining player. In some ways, he might be. But considering the Cowboys had a record-setting season running the ball with DeMarco Murray rushing for a franchise-best 1,845 yards, some players will have to take a hit stat-wise and Witten was one of them. Witten's 64 catches were the lowest since his rookie year in 2003 and the same goes for his 703
receiving yards. He did catch five touchdowns, which was a little higher than his average. All of the numbers go down when Murray rushes 392 times during the season. Witten did accept more of a blocking role and should be commended for helping pave the way for some of Murray's yards. Hanna proved to be a solid blocker in his third season, although Escobar still didn't work himself into the passing game, catching just nine passes.
Need More From … The only real answer here is Escobar. A second-round pick in 2013, Escobar isn't considered a great blocker and caught only nine passes. However, he at least proved to be a good red-zone option, catching four touchdowns. It's easy to criticize him for not being more involved the offense, but the opportunities just aren't there on a team that runs as well as the Cowboys do, and has receiving options ahead of him like Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley and Witten.
Upgrades Needed:Who knows if Witten will ever slow down, but when and if he does, the Cowboys are hoping Escobar will be more than ready to fill in as the starter. We've seen with other backups to Witten that more opportunities have helped the player grow, such as Anthony Fasano and Martellus Bennett, who was named to the Pro Bowl this past season. The Cowboys could realistically draft a tight end in the middle-to-late rounds, but considering how well Hanna played last year in his role, any late-round pick would have a hard time beating out Hanna. So this is one position that might not have new personnel.
By The Numbers:
- In 10 of his 12 seasons, Witten has finished the year with an average per catch somewhere in the 11-yard range. In 2014, it was no different as he averaged exactly 11.0 yards per catch. Only in 2003 (9.9 average) and 2012 (9.4) has Witten not averaged between 11.0 and 11.9.
- Throughout the league, players that caught four touchdowns in 2014 include Golden Tate, Marshawn Lynch, Matt Forte, Julian Edelman and, of course, Escobar.
- Witten's 10th Pro Bowl ties him for second in Cowboys history alongside Larry Allen and Mel Renfro. Only Bob Lilly (11 selections) went to more Pro Bowls with the Cowboys.
- Witten has 943 career receptions, good for 15th on the NFL's list for all receivers. If Witten can get 57 catches in 2015 to reach the 1,000 milestone, he could be as high as 10th all-time as Hines Ward currently ranks 10th with 1,000 catches. Witten is slightly ahead of Anquan Boldin (940) in catches on the league's list of career receptions.