While the first couple of waves of free agency have passed, it's never too late to upgrade the roster, something the Cowboys will try to do at the end of this month with the NFL Draft.
Even with that, the majority of the 2018 roster is already in place. In the coming weeks, the staff of DallasCowboys.com will preview those players, analyzing where they've been and where they're going.
Today, we continue the series with tight end Jason Witten.
What's Been Good:
In a league where the average career length is three years, Jason Witten is gearing up for season No. 16 – which will make him the longest-tenured Cowboy in the franchise's history. The guy just keeps rolling along. The stats are memorized by now. Witten has missed just one game in his career, dating all the way back to his rookie season in 2003. And despite his age, he continues to prove his value on a variety of fronts. In 2017, he played 98.2 percent of the Cowboys' offensive snaps, finishing with 63 catches for 560 yards and five touchdowns. It was a far cry from the 1,000-yard seasons he posted in years gone by, but it was still good enough for third on the team. And, as ever, Witten's veteran presence as a team captain proved invaluable during a season that was rocked by seemingly never-ending controversies. To paraphrase Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, Witten is the embodiment of consistency. He is ever-present in practice as well as games, given that he is both the Cowboys' best run blocker and receiver among their tight ends. It's especially telling that, even in his 15th season, Witten nabbed 72.4 percent of the balls thrown his way – ranking in the top half of his career.
What's Been Bad:
It's ok to admit it – Jason Witten in 2017 is not quite on the level of Jason Witten in 2007. At the age of 35, it's remarkable how well he is still playing at one of the game's most physical positions, but the signs of age are there. Witten's 560 yards last fall was his lowest total since his rookie season, and his average of 8.9 yards per reception was the lowest of his entire career. He was also flagged four times – three of which were for offensive holding. None of this is to say he isn't effective. But even against an ageless wonder like Jason Witten, Father Time is undefeated.
Even if his numbers have dipped a bit, Witten is still capable of brilliance that reminds you why he's going to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His one-handed touchdown grab against San Francisco was one such occasion – and a really memorable one, at that. With Dallas facing a 2nd-and-7 from the 49ers' 18-yard line, Witten came off the line against San Francisco safety Jaquiski Tart. Despite having a decade on the 49ers DB, Witten completely baffled Tartt with an out-and-up, and freed himself in the back of the end zone. Dak Prescott delivered a perfectly lofted ball right over Tartt's outstretched hand, and Witten reeled it in one-handed for a phenomenal touchdown. The play put the Cowboys up, 20-3, in an eventual 40-10 win.
Witten is going to retire one of these days – but it isn't going to be in 2018. The 11-time Pro Bowler is already back at work in the Cowboys' offseason program, and he figures to once again be a staple of the offense and a security blanket for Prescott this season. If there are questions about Witten, it's more about the big picture. How many more seasons is he going to play? How capable is the depth chart behind him, comprised of James Hanna, Geoff Swaim, Blake Jarwin and Rico Gathers? Do the Cowboys need to draft his eventual replacement this spring? All of that is up for debate. One thing that's not in question is that Witten appears set to chug along at a high level in 2018.
- Witten takes a beating from critics that he's at the end of the line. In fact, I just recently heard a local media member call him a "mummy" due to his lack of movement.
- He is not as athletic as he once was, but this scheme requires him to play a different way. He is not going to make those 40 to 50-yard catch and runs, but he still is effective on third downs and in the red zone.
- Witten still has a feel for how to buy space in order to secure a catch. Some speed and burst might have left him, but his intelligence for the position and hands have not. Over the years he has improved as a run blocker. When the club is running the ball well, it's generally behind a Witten block. He has developed a feel for how to position his body in a way to keep the defender from the play. He is not always perfect but still better than most younger tight ends in the league.
- Before the Super Bowl this year, Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins referred to Rob Gronkowski as a combination of Jason Witten and Travis Kelce. That's high praise from one of the best in the league when it comes to dealing with the tight end position.
- I view Witten as throwback player that could have lined up in any era and been one of the best at his position. Closer to the end but is not the liability that many feel he is.