Position Series: Questions About Cowboys' Tight Ends Focus On Future

(Editor's Note: April is here, which means the first wave of free agency has passed and the NFL Draft is just around the corner. DallasCowboys.com's 11-part series analyzes every position on the Cowboys' roster at this point in the offseason: free-agent additions and subtractions, draft possibilities, returning players and question marks. The series continues with tight end.)

Roster Holdovers: Strictly speaking, the Cowboys are working with most of the same cast they had last year at tight end – but each of those options comes with its own set of questions.

Jason Witten is returning for a 15th season, which would tie him with Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Bill Bates and Mark Tuinei as the longest-serving Cowboy in team history. Witten is and always has been the model of consistency, given that he hasn't missed a game since his rookie season. He also just signed a four-year contract extension, which would seem to quiet the concerns about a possible retirement. But it is important to remember that none of the money in that extension is guaranteed – and that Witten will be turning 35 in May. It's safe to say that the perennial Pro Bowler will be around for 2017, but it's starting to become feasible to see the end of his career.

Elsewhere, Geoff Swaim continues to face injury issues. The California native had a promising season derailed by a pectoral injury, which sidelined him from November until the end of the year. Having recovered from that surgery, he suffered a broken metatarsal during offseason workouts. He's expected to be ready for the start of the 2017 campaign, but Swaim should miss the bulk of the offseason program.

Something similar can be said for James Hanna. The veteran almost feels like an afterthought right now, especially considering he signed a three-year contract extension just a year ago. Hanna was sidelined by knee problems throughout last spring, and he never appeared in a game during the 2016 season. As it stands right now, it remains to be seen what his availability for the offseason program will be.

And then of course there's Rico Gathers, who remains one of the Cowboys' most intriguing prospects. Gathers' story should be familiar by now – drafted in the sixth round after a decorated college basketball career, despite a lack of experience with football. The Cowboys put Gathers on the practice squad and guaranteed his salary to keep him from pursuing other offers. He practiced all last fall, and reports indicate that he's made a lot of progress – though it's fair to say he still has a long way to go.

Free Agency Overview: As mentioned above, the Cowboys made news in March when they extended Witten's contract by another four years.

But with Witten entering into the final years of his career, this decision was less about big money and more about clarity. For starters, it put a stop to the incessant questions about Witten's retirement. The veteran tight end was physically and emotionally spent after January's playoff exit, and plenty of people wondered if he might call it a career. Witten might not play every season on his new deal, but he at least now has provided some clarity that he doesn't have any immediate plans on retiring.

The new contract also provides the Cowboys with some options on their salary cap. Given the extra years on the deal, the Cowboys now have the flexibility to restructure Witten's contract and save themselves up to $4 million – should they choose to do so.

On the flipside, the Cowboys also parted ways with Gavin Escobar. The four-year veteran signed on with Kansas City after hitting the open market. It was a disappointing finish to Escobar's tenure in Dallas, given that he was selected No. 47 overall in 2013. Still, it's hard to describe it as a gigantic loss, given Escobar's limited role in the Cowboys' offense.

Draft Outlook: Tight end has been a bit of a troublesome position in recent years, given the way the Cowboys' noteworthy picks have gone – Anthony Fasano, Martellus Bennett and Escobar all come to mind.

But if the Cowboys wanted to draft a potential successor for Witten – or even just some young depth – this certainly could be the year. This draft class is loaded with elite talent tight end, with athletic prospects like O.J. Howard and David Njoku taking top billing. But there are also intriguing names littered through the later rounds. Guys like Ashland's Adam Shaheen, Clemson's Jordan Leggett, Toledo's Michael Roberts and Arkansas' Jeremy Sprinkle could all be difference-makers – and they could all be had in the later rounds.

Time To Shine: This could apply to just about everyone – except perhaps Witten, who continues to chug along after a decade and a half at one of the game's most physical positions.

It'd be nice to see continued development from Swaim. He was off to a very promising start as a versatile handyman in the Dallas offense, and the popular refrain is that the running game took a step back when the Cowboys lost his blocking ability in mid-November.

Of course, what everyone really wants to see is a big step forward from Gathers. The former Baylor basketball player has the athleticism to be a mismatch, and he has apparently made progress in the other aspects of the position. It'll be interesting to see how that translates on the field during OTAs and in training camp.

If Gathers manages to nab a 53-man roster spot this year, it will say a lot about what he's been able to accomplish. If the Cowboys don't have faith he can do that, they may be better off drafting one of this year's many promising rookies.

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