Witten's 79 catches were his fewest since 2006.
(Editor's Note: This is the third of an 11-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 2012 season. Today we examine the tight ends.)
Pressing Matters:Having locked up Jason Witten with a contract extension through 2017, any questions at the position lie behind the likely future Ring of Honor player. Backup Martellus Bennett is set to hit free agency, and has made it no secret he hopes to become a starter somewhere. While three-year veteran John Phillips has been effective in his role in the past, it is different than the one Bennett has manned since 2008.
2011 Evaluation: While Witten's reception total was at a five-year low, his yards-per-catch average tied a career high, evening his production despite fewer targets. Due to inconsistency on the offensive line, Witten was asked to stay in and block a little more often, and Tony Romo also seemed to spread the ball to his wide receivers on a greater percentage of his throws. Still, Witten was kept out of the Pro Bowl for the first time since his rookie campaign due to a breakout season by New Orleans' Jimmy Graham and continued consistency from Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez.
For an offense that likes the two tight end set, the potential loss of Bennett could have a deeper impact than some expect. Though he had only 17 catches, Bennett helped to power a greatly improved Cowboys running game.
Though not exactly dominant when lining up as a fullback, Phillips is an above average blocker, and has shown some potential with the ball in his hands, catching 15 passes despite fewer opportunities.
Need More From . . . : The evolution of the NFL passing game, to include receiving monsters at tight end such as Graham and Rob Gronkowski in New England, has happened quickly. In just a year, Witten's place in the positional hierarchy has come into some question, though his year-in, year-out production and durability makes him the least of the Cowboys' concerns. Still, for the team to take the next step, the Cowboys will need their greatest players to come up even bigger.
Upgrades Needed:If Bennett leaves, the team will have to get help from somewhere. The team has a definite appreciation for what Phillips has done, and he appeared to be making a case for more playing time before tearing his ACL in the 2010 preseason, so he may very well be upgraded to the No. 2 spot.
However, when watching a team like the Patriots take advantage of the matchup problems created by having two great receivers at the tight end position, it's tempting to imagine what a more athletic player could do in tandem with Jason Witten.
The draft will be the most likely avenue for an addition, but given the confidence the team has in Phillips, tight end could be a relatively low priority in April. The Cowboys may be in position to identify a low-risk, high-reward project such as Graham, who played basketball at Miami before switching to football for one year. San Diego's Antonio Gates had a similar career path.
Jason Witten -Still only 29, Witten's drop in production down the stretch seems to have more to do with circumstance than diminishing skills.
Martellus Bennett - A dominant blocker at the position, his potential as a pass-catcher was badly overestimated. The locker room may be cleared of a distraction if he were to leave.
John Phillips - A versatile worker bee, he might offer more in the passing game than Bennett, but isn't as much of an asset to the running game.