INDIANAPOLIS – At his retirement press conference last spring, Jason Witten acknowledged "there aren't many decisions that come with absolute certainty."
Ten months later, nearing age 37, Witten has decided he's not done playing football after all. If anyone can return from a year off and reclaim his standard of play, the Cowboys believe it's their ironman tight end.
"That was the biggest discussion he and I had, was being able to go out there physically," head coach Jason Garrett said. "He knows the demands of the game more than anybody else to make an honest assessment of where he was physically."
Witten's role this upcoming season is not immediately clear, however. Garrett understandably would not speculate on a potential snap count for Witten at this stage of the offseason. The Cowboys don't know for sure what free agency and the draft will bring, either.
Which leads to this question: Is tight end a need for this team in 2019 now?
Before Thursday's stunning announcement, the answer seemed an obvious 'yes.' Two days ago, Cowboys chief operating officer Stephen Jones acknowledged the team's youth at that spot. Their only veteran tight end from 2018, Geoff Swaim, is set to be a free agent in March.
Witten drastically alters the experience dynamic. Turning 37 in May, he's now the oldest position player on the roster and at least 11 years older than any Cowboys tight end under contract.
The Cowboys also saw their youngsters take a step forward last season:
- Blake Jarwin recorded 23 of his 27 catches after Swaim broke his wrist in November, and in Week 17 against the Giants he became the first Cowboys tight end in 45 years to catch three touchdown passes in a single game.
- Inactive for five of the first six games, 2018 fourth-round pick Dalton Schultz appeared to settle in at midseason and caught 12 passes with reduced snaps over 11 games.
- Rico Gathers earned a spot in the rotation mostly as a blocker, but the former power forward's pass-catching potential at 6-6, 280 is obvious.
Cowboys coaches and executives are here at the NFL Combine evaluating the top prospects in April's draft. On some level, roster needs factor into the vast majority of draft selections. The salary cap era and player movement leaves little room for luxury picks.
Perhaps Witten's return lessens the immediate urgency for tight end depth – especially for a team like Dallas without a first-round pick – even though this appears to be a strong draft class. But Garrett, speaking in general terms Wednesday, pointed out that the Cowboys pride themselves on drafting purely.
"One of the things that I think, if you look at our drafts that we've done the best in recent years, is we haven't been so need-heavy and we typically draft our best players when we say, 'OK, who's the best guy,'" Garrett said. "And hopefully we've built our team up to the point where we don't have these blatant needs."
Witten will work himself into football shape again. He should be a dependable option underneath for quarterback Dak Prescott once again.
How much he impacts the Cowboys' potential plans at tight end remains to be seen over the next few weeks.