(Editor's Note: This is the first 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 2016 season. Today we examine the tight ends.)
On the surface this doesn't seem like an area of drastic need. Jason Witten continues to chug along at a Pro Bowl level, as he caught 77 passes for 713 yards and three touchdowns last year. The Cowboys also traded up in last spring's draft to grab an intriguing talent in Geoff Swaim. Look further, though, and it gets a bit troubling. James Hanna is arguably the best blocking tight end on the team, and he is set to enter free agency in March. Gavin Escobar is still under contract, but he tore his Achilles on Dec. 19 and his availability for 2016 is questionable at best. The Cowboys are just fine at the top of the depth chart, but it's fair to say their depth is lacking.
As is the case everywhere else, it becomes slightly harder to judge the position when you consider the loss of Tony Romo for the vast majority of the season. Witten put up solid numbers – especially considering he was lacking consistent production from the quarterback spot. He led the team in receptions, and he was second on the team in yardage, despite only going over 50 receiving yards in six of 16 games. The Cowboys got production from Hanna, though mainly as a blocker in the running game – which has become his role over the course of his four years with the team. Even before his injury, Escobar's role has to be considered a disappointment for a second-round pick in his third season. He caught just eight passes for 64 yards and a touchdown. Swaim was hardly used in his debut season – which is understandable, given his place on the depth chart.
Need More From …
If he were healthy, the answer here would obviously be Escobar. The San Diego State star was taken No. 47 overall in 2013 – before Pro Bowlers like Le'Veon Bell, Eddie Lacy, Travis Kelce and Tyrann Mathieu, to name a few. Escobar has a mere 26 receptions for 303 yards through three seasons. Having said all of that, it's hard to ask more from a guy who has a lengthy rehab in front of him and might be seriously limited next year. That puts a lot of pressure on Swaim. He's only a seventh-round pick entering his second season, but it's fair to say he is currently the No. 2 tight end on the depth chart. The Cowboys will likely sign or draft another guy to bolster the position, but they clearly like Swaim or they wouldn't have traded a sixth-round pick to move up and get him.
As mentioned above, the Cowboys currently only have two healthy tight ends under contract. They need at least three, if not four when the season rolls around. It sounds great to re-sign Hanna to an affordable deal, and it's safe to assume they'll try. But Hanna might be able to find a bigger role – and therefore more money – on the open market. If Hanna or a similar replacement can't be acquired affordably in free agency, don't be surprised if the Cowboys turn toward the draft once again. It seems unlikely it'd be another high pick – like Escobar – but there's certainly a need for more talent.
By The Numbers:
- Since taking Witten 69th overall in 2003, the Cowboys have drafted seven other tight ends.
- Of those seven tight ends, none have signed a second contract with the team to date. But Hanna, Escobar and Swaim are still serving under their rookie deals.
- Witten's 77 receptions in 2015 is more than the combined total of Escobar, Hanna and Swaim for their careers.
- Dallas tight ends accounted for 11 total penalties in 2015 – seven from Witten, two from Swam and one each from Escobar and Hanna.
Escobar might have just 26 career catches, but seven of these went for touchdowns. That's 27 percent of his career receptions going for pay dirt, illustrating his worth as