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Spagnola: Quest For Second TE Becoming Never-Ending Quest


IRVING, Texas – What was it your mama would tell you when you just couldn't seem to get something right, try, try and try again.

Well these Dallas Cowboys must subscribe to that same adage when it comes to second tight ends. Check it out.

In 2006, Bill Parcells thought enough of having a second tight end to pair with his budding perennial Pro Bowler Jason Witten that the Cowboys maneuvered down in the second round, trading places with the New York Jets and collecting an extra sixth and seventh-round pick for their troubles just to select Notre Dame tight end Anthony Fasano – a round higher than Witten.

Fasano lasted two years, catching just 28 passes for 269 yards and one touchdown. But with the change in coaching staffs, Jason Garrett becoming the offensive coordinator in 2007, the Cowboys wanted a second tight end not only to block but to become intimately involved in the offense getting down field. Fasano didn't fit that bill, and subsequently was traded before the 2008 draft, along with linebacker Akin Ayodele, for a fourth-round pick to Miami.

And in that draft the Cowboys rolled the dice again in the second round looking for that gifted tight end to pair with Witten. This time the choice was Martellus Bennett with the 30th pick in the second round, at the time described as a misused tight end with limited production at Texas A&M.

Bennett sure looked the part, a big, athletic and agile tight end who teased the Cowboys with his talent, but underwhelmed them with his production, actually becoming a better on-line blocker than a downfield receiver. So after four years and becoming an unrestricted free agent in 2012, the Cowboys only offered him a one-year deal for $2.5 million, same deal the New York Giants offered him.

Well, Bennett jumped at the Giants offer and opportunity to start, signing with the Cowboys' NFC East rival and leaving the Cowboys piecing together that second tight end spot last year with the likes of John Phillips and rookie James Hanna. The two combined for 26 catches totaling 141 yards and one touchdown, not exactly what Garrett, now the head coach, had in mind when running what is called "12" personnel – one running back, two tight ends.

Undaunted, the Cowboys would swing again for the fences in the second round of this past April's NFL Draft for that much desired No. 2 tight end, looking for a downfield threat catching the ball with the body structure to become a decent on-line blocker. Sort of the second coming of Witten, now an eight-time Pro Bowler who didn't exactly enter the NFL with a blocking reputation if you remember Parcells chiding him his rookie year one day in practice, "Oh, so you're a pass-catching tight end."

Thus, Gavin Escobar with the 15th pick in the second, he too better known as a pass-catching tight end from San Diego State. Here the Cowboys go again, for the third time in the past eight drafts rolling the dice with a second-round pick on that elusive second tight end to pair with Witten, now entering, if you can believe this – how time flies – his 11th season.

Persistent? Stubborn? Dag nabbit, this darn "12" personnel is going to work.

So  I'm sure after this weekend's three-day rookie minicamp, inquiring minds want to know, even though the practices are in, from head to toe, helmets, T-shirts, shorts and football cleats, How did Escobar look?
Well, got a feeling everyone down the hallway from here is smiling . . . big.

"We used some resources to draft him, we used a second round pick, so we think a lot of him," a predictably cautious Garrett said of Escobar, "and we want to give him every opportunity to acclimate himself to our offensive system."

"He caught the ball with the same great skill he did in college," owner Jerry Jones said after watching Saturday afternoon's practice.

"Really impressed by his toughness," newly-promoted tight ends coach Wes Phillips said. "He would not have been taken in the second round if we didn't think he could become a complete tight end."
OK, OK, so let me go here if helmets, T-shirts and shorts aren't misleading, nor my own eyeballs: The guy catches the ball as if he has two first baseman mitts on. His hands just seem to absorb the ol' pigskin, you know, as if two big suction cups.

And yes, I did say hands. No body-catching here. Reach. Snatch. Up. Down. Out. In. No matter, all traits of a quarterback's best friend.

Again, let me preface: T-shirts and shorts, only a handful of practices, and mostly working against rookie free agents and weekend workout guys. So as Bill would say, let's not anoint the guy just yet. He's got a lot of work to do, and my guess is Hanna is not just going to roll over and bequeath the No. 2 job to the rookie, and he certainly came on late in the season.

Hmmm, so what you think of "13" personnel, tight ends coming at you from every which way?

Look, here is just one example of the feel and hands this 22-year-old, junior-out has for the position. On this one particular play, Escobar, lining up left, floated out into the left flat. When the quarterback couldn't find a receiver down field, he himself floated left. Escobar immediately widened out his route then instinctively turned up the sideline, as if running a wheel route to give the quarterback another option.
Sure enough, the pass came Escobar's way, but was behind him. No problem, Escobar effortlessly, without missing a step, simply turned back in to catch the ball, spinning and reaching out toward the sideline . . . as if no big deal, probably to the amazement of the safety actually in front of him.

 Afterward, Escobar was rather understated when being interviewed in the locker room, taking most in stride with that same no-big-deal approach. Not cocky mind you, just rather reserved, the antithesis of Bennett, and that I'm darn sure of after just a couple of days.

Realizing from the questions some were getting the idea practicing for the first time in the NFL meant little to him, Escobar explained his casualness by saying, "I've got kind of a laid-back demeanor off the field, but I'm kind of excited."

Hey, West Coast dude, you know. What you expect from a kid born and raised in a place called Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.?

Which likely leads to the question: Can he get down and dirty in the trenches to block, probably the same question some asked of Witten, also a junior-out, from Tennessee, who came in at 6-5, 257, an inch shorter and a half-dozen pounds heavier than Escobar (251), considered by most the second best tight end in this year's draft.

In time, "probably" will be the answer to that question. As most 22-year-olds, he needs to get stronger, and he probably wasn't asked to do much of that dirty work at San Diego State, and why would the Aztecs of a tight end capable of catching 122 passes, 18 of those for touchdowns, in the past three seasons.

Helping him accomplish that some will be the zone-blocking scheme the Cowboys seem to be implementing more of, meaning he'll be asked when lining up tight to the line of scrimmage to basically wall off defenders instead of trying to belly up and muscle a guy one-on-one. A year in Mike Woicik's weight room will do him wonders, too, usually a universal rookie necessity to become bigger, stronger, faster.

The good thing is, he seems willing, not appearing to be some cool, surfer dude, you know.

"Felt like he is a tough kid, willing to stick his face in there," Phillips said.

Now that's what you want to hear.

And I'm guessing from this first weekend also what you wanted to see when it comes to his pass-catching ability, if only a mere minicamp glimpse.

Hey, who knows, maybe the third time really is, uh, a charm, in the Cowboys' seemingly never-ending quest for that No. 2 tight end.

Right, mama?

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