(Editor's Note: This is the fourth of a 12-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 2013 season. Today we examine the tight ends.)
Pressing Matters: Jason Witten is still the same reliable threat he's been throughout his tenure in Dallas. He's not going anywhere and will remain quarterback Tony Romo's security blanket for as many years as the two are still playing catch with each other in Dallas. Eventually, that time will come to an end, so the pressing matter becomes prepping a backup into becoming a complete tight end, capable of assuming a more advanced role in the offense. It's possible that player could be James Hanna, depending on his progress the next few seasons. He became more of a threat in the passing game as 2012 wore on.
2012 Evaluation: Witten's season didn't start in typical Witten fashion, but by the end of it he became the Cowboys' all-time leader in receptions while setting the single-season tight end record for receptions, finishing with 110 catches on the year. He returned earlier than expected from a spleen injury he sustained in the preseason. It took Witten about four games to really start looking like himself again. Dropped passes and strange mistakes marred his performance early on, but he became a reliable target every week once he got healthy, finishing with better numbers than any of the young stars at his position. Hanna and John Phillips also contributed with eight catches apiece.
Need More From … : It'd be beneficial if Hanna could get more involved offensively. By the end of the year, he was being utilized mostly in the slot. He seemed to be a mismatch against most linebackers. If he can get more involved, it should help open up things for the receivers and Witten. It'd be difficult to pick apart any portion of Witten's game, given what he can provide to the offense. But he could do more in the red zone, where the Cowboys struggled. Given how many times he touched the ball, three touchdowns isn't much.
Upgrades Needed: It'd be difficult to upgrade from the league's top pass-catching tight end. The Cowboys could, however, use another tight end to really challenge Hanna for the second spot. John Phillips is a free agent, and pushing Hanna could make the rookie progress more in his second year.
Jason Witten – After a rough start to the year following injury, the reliable veteran shows no signs of slowing down, setting the single-season receptions mark for a tight end, while also passing Michael Irvin for the Cowboys' record in career receptions. He's still the most reliable target for Romo.
James Hanna – The sixth-round pick figures to be a more prominent piece of the passing game next year after getting involved late in the season and finishing with eight catches for 86 yards. He was more useful in the passing game than blocking, possessing an ability to play in the slot.
John Phillips – The unrestricted free agent might not be in a Cowboys' uniform next year, particularly after James Hanna flashed his potential. Phillips might be the better blocker, though, and actually finished with the same number of catches as Hanna and a touchdown.
Colin Cochart – He was brought on just prior to the start of the season, when Witten's availability for the opener in New York was in question. Witten ended up starting, and Cochart was released soon after, but the Cowboys clearly want another look at him.
Andre Smith – No, not the tackle for the Bengals. The Cowboys' Smith joined the practice squad in Week 16. He's made rounds with the Bears and Colts previously, after going undrafted in 2011 from Virginia Tech.
Bryan Broaddus on the Cowboys' current TE situation:
The question this off season will be if the Cowboys decide to bring John Phillips back because he is an unrestricted free agent. I personally don't think they will. I believe that they will roll with James Hanna and look to draft a better version of Phillips in this upcoming draft. (Read more here)