In my post on Laurent Robinson, I questioned the importance of No. 3 receivers. Not up for debate, however, is the fact that Cowboys fans already miss Robinson in 2012. That same kind of sorrow doesn't seem to surround former Cowboys and current New York Giants tight end Martellus Bennett, at least not to the same degree.
Part of the reason Bennett's absence isn't discussed much is that he seemed like a knucklehead who didn't capitalize on his massive potential. While Bennett had an eccentric personality, I really think his role in Dallas was misunderstood. He didn't thrive as a receiver, but catching passes was really third on his list of job duties. In terms of what Jason Garrett needed most from Bennett – outstanding run blocking and pass protection – the tight end excelled.
I've tracked Cowboys plays for the past three years, and during that time Bennett played 1,496 snaps. You can see above that Bennett was a receiver on only 37.4% of those plays. On the other 62.6%, he was asked to either pave the way for running backs or keep Tony Romo on his feet. He performed both tasks at a near-elite level.
In pass protection, Bennett was actually superior to Jason Witten. Let me clarify that Witten is no slouch as a blocker; he's one of the league's best. Over the past three years, however, Bennett didn't allow a single sack. Actually, he allowed Romo to get hit just a single time in 166 snaps of pass protection, and the quarterback was forced to move out of the pocket only five times because of pressure from the defender Bennett was blocking.
Witten, in comparison, has yielded four sacks on 242 snaps of pass protection since 2009. He has let Romo get hit three times and forced him to roll out on seven occasions. Those are really solid numbers; Witten allowed some sort of pressure on just 5.8% of snaps in pass protection. Bennett was even better at 3.6%.
As a run blocker, Bennett was sensational. Despite his nonchalant persona, Bennett worked like a monster to become one of the league's premiere run blockers.
You can see the 'Boys thrived when running behind Marty B. From 2009 to 2011, the team averaged 5.6 yards-per-carry with Bennett at the point-of-attack, compared to 4.9 behind Witten. Again, that's not a knock on Witten, but rather evidence of Bennett's dominance as a blocker. Bennett's time in Big D was capped off with DeMarco Murray & Co. averaging a stellar 5.9 YPC when toting the rock toward his area of the field. To clarify, I labeled a tight end as being at the point-of-attack on any run to his side of the field and outside the offensive tackle.
So where will the Cowboys turn in 2012? By the look of the current personnel, it appears Garrett might be wanting to deploy his second tight end differently than in past seasons. John Phillips is still an unknown commodity heading into his fourth NFL campaign, and DallasCowboys.com's Bryan Broaddus describes rookie sixth-rounder James Hanna as a guy who "will not hammer you at the point of attack." Unless the team plans to pick up a veteran tight end, that could mean fewer two-tight end sets in 2012.
Ultimately, I think fans are going to end up missing Bennett. With all the gags Bennett played on teammates and media during his time in Dallas, his biggest trick may have been convincing fans he wasn't an integral component of the team's success.