(Editor's Note: This is the fourth of a 12-part series examining and analyzing the main position groups for the Cowboys as they prepare for training camp. Today's piece focuses on the tight ends.)
What's the Deal?Jason Witten's still the main man at the position, entering his 12th year in the league and coming off a 2013 season in which his receptions and yards went down but his receiving touchdowns went way up, making the most of his chances in the red zone. He'll be expected to be a favorite once again for Tony Romo, as no other tight end has come close to Witten's production. But the expectations will be higher this year for his backup, Gavin Escobar. The 2013 second-round pick had just nine catches last year, but two of them went for touchdowns. Also on the roster and still waiting for a breakout year is James Hanna, as well as undrafted rookie Jordan Najvar. The Cowboys could afford to keep more than three tight ends on the roster last year, but that may not be the case in 2014.
Still Need to Find Out:
How Scott Linehan changes the production of this group and its depth. One of Linehan's best abilities last season in Detroit was getting the secondary players involved in the offense. For example, he kept backup running back Joique Bell involved with 650 rushing yards and 547 receiving yards. He also had a knack for getting all his tight ends involved in the red zone. Brandon Pettigrew only had two touchdowns, but seven of Joseph Fauria's 18 receptions went for touchdowns. Escobar has the size to make a similar impact in Linehan's offense, and the Cowboys need him to be a weapon when the field starts to shrink.
It's difficult to know which numbers to focus on more for Witten – the 73 catches and 851 yards or the eight touchdowns. The reception and yardage totals were his lowest since 2006. Conversely, his touchdown total was the second-highest of his career. But let's put Witten's decreasing reception and yardage totals in perspective. He still finished in the top five in the league among tight ends in both categories. If the Cowboys end up focusing on the running game more, though – which they may now with the addition of Zack Martin – it's possible those chances trend downward. Either way, the touchdown totals are encouraging. If Witten can keep that up and Escobar can make more of an impact in that area, it'll take a lot of pressure off touchdown machine Dez Bryant. [embedded_ad]
Ready to Breakout?It's tempting to mention Hanna here, considering he was viewed as one of the most popular breakout candidates last year. But it seems the likeliest candidate to breakout at this position is the guy the Cowboys spent a recent second-round pick on, and that's Escobar. The consensus on Escobar was that he needed an offseason getting stronger in the weight room and with the training staff to get to where the Cowboys hope he can be. We'll see soon at training camp if his offseason paid off, and they're expecting him to make much more of an impact this coming year.
Battle to Watch:Coming out of Oxnard in 2013, they had four tight ends on the active roster but no fullback. They might not be able to do that if they decide to keep Tyler Clutts or J.C. Copeland on the roster. With that thought in mind, Witten and Escobar are locks, but now that brings Hanna and Najvar in play... (Click here for the full report from Bryan Broaddus)
Last Time Out:
For a look back at how all the tight ends on the roster performed last year, click here.