IRVING, Texas – One of the few constants during the Cowboys' disappointing and injury-plagued 2015 season was the roster's longest-tenured player, Jason Witten, leading the team in catches for the eighth time since 2003.
Witten remains a vital part of the offense entering his 14th season. The depth behind him could look a bit different to start the year, though, with Gavin Escobar currently rehabbing from a torn Achilles suffered last December.
With the draft in two weeks, adding another tight end to the mix isn't out of the question. As things stand here in mid-April, here's how the position breaks down, led again by their 10-time Pro Bowler.
What We Know: The NFL's active iron man, Witten played in all 16 games for a 12th straight season. Despite a revolving door at quarterback – for the first time in Witten's career he caught passes from four different starters due to Tony Romo's 12-game absence (collarbone) – his team-high 77 catches were the most he's tallied since 2012. And, despite the offense's struggles – the Cowboys failed to score a touchdown in four games – Witten was a safety blanket for all four quarterbacks. He only came off the field for seven offensive plays the entire season, appearing in 1,012 of a possible 1,019 plays.
Still Need To Know:Witten has shown the last two seasons he can adjust his game based on the offense's needs. With Dez Bryant sidelined seven games with foot and ankle injuries, Witten was the main receiving target at age 33, a year after having an underrated season as a blocker while Bryant posted a career-high 16 touchdowns and the Cowboys finished second in rushing. The main question for 2016 is the depth behind him, as we'll explore below.
What We Know: Escobar, the team's second-round pick in 2013, hadn't missed an NFL game in three seasons before tearing his Achilles tendon at the end of the team's Week 15 loss to the Jets. The Cowboys placed him on injured reserve for the final two games, and his recovery could extend into the start of the 2016 season. In 14 games, Escobar had eight catches for 64 yards.
Still Need To Know: The exact timeline for Escobar's return isn't certain. Given how late in the year he suffered the injury (Dec. 19), the physically unable to perform (PUP) list could be a possibility at the start of the regular season.
What We Know: Hanna, a seventh-round pick by Dallas in 2012, entered unrestricted free agency in March but ultimately decided to return on a new three-year contract. Like Escobar (25 career catches, seven touchdowns), Hanna hasn't been a major factor in the passing game (33 career catches, no touchdowns). That has been Witten's job. But for four years his ability to make blocks downfield has been an underrated asset to the running game.[embeddedad0]
Still Need To Know: Last year Hanna and Escobar had nearly identical offensive snaps over 14 games (Hanna 222; Escobar 231). With Escobar recovering from injury, how would Hanna's role change in a clear No. 2 role behind Witten? He was a downfield receiving option in college at Oklahoma, and he could have more opportunities in multi-tight end sets in 2016.
What We Know: Swaim, a seventh-round draft pick last April, appeared in four games as a rookie and caught one pass for no gain. Seven of his 23 total offensive snaps were in the final two games with Escobar sidelined, and he could be in line for more playing time to start the 2016 depending on Escobar's injury status.
Still Need To Know:How much Swaim's role might change in his second year and how much those rookie snaps, however few, might have helped his development. The Cowboys like his versatility to play in the backfield and on the line at the tight end position. Another offseason with the team should help him continue to grow into a complete player. "He's a young tight end. But he has a lot of different traits that make you feel like he could be a complete tight end," head coach Jason Garrett said last December. "He did a good job blocking in training camp and showed he could run routes and catch the ball."