Cowboys position breakdown: Tight ends

Cowboys reporters Calvin Watkins and Todd Archer breakdown the Cowboys, position by position, analyzing what the players did in 2013, what they can do in the future and what the team can do to improve the position in 2014.

Under contract: Jason Witten, Gavin Escobar, James Hanna

A look back: The final numbers might look off after catching 110 passes in 2012, an NFL record for a tight end, but in some ways Witten had a better season in 2013.

He caught 73 passes for 851 yards and had eight touchdowns. He had to stay in for pass protection more, which contributed to his reception total decreasing, but he averaged 11.7 yards per catch, which was his second highest in the past five seasons. His eight touchdowns were one off a career high and his involvement inside the 20 played a big part in the improvement of the red-zone offense.

Escobar came in with second-round expectations with the Cowboys moving more to a “12 personnel” offense, but he was unable to unseat Hanna and saw only 197 snaps during the season. Hanna played 311. The Cowboys knew Escobar needed development as a blocker but how much even surprised them. He finished with nine catches for 134 yards and two touchdowns. What he does have is athletic ability and the chance to stretch the seams from his position.

Hanna caught 12 passes for 73 yards and was OK. The coaches were unable to find ways to get him the ball in space where he could use his speed. For a backup, he was fine but Escobar should take some playing time from him in 2014.

A look ahead: The Cowboys replaced tight ends coach Wes Phillips, who took the same job with the Washington Redskins, with veteran New York Giants coach Mike Pope, which might qualify as their best move of the short offseason.

Pope has developed tight ends everywhere he has coached and developing Escobar will be his No. 1 task. Witten turns 32 in May and with his ninth Pro Bowl appearance in 11 years does not appear to be slowing down. Pope can help him with the nuances of the game and also challenge him schematically.

Escobar needs to add bulk this offseason and be a weight-room junkie. He has to show a willingness to improve as a blocker. If he doesn’t, then the Cowboys will have used a second-round pick on a niche player.

A look out: There is no doubt the Cowboys will draft a tight end in the second round. OK, we kid. With Witten entering his 12th season and Escobar and Hanna something of a question mark, it is not inconceivable the Cowboys look for help at the position.

They do not need to spend a premium pick or cash on the position. With Witten playing nearly 100 percent of the snaps, the Cowboys have to figure out a way to integrate their two tight end package better and with more options.

They could add more of a blocking tight end. Some at Valley Ranch thought Andre Smith could have filled that role in 2013 more. They could look in the middle to late rounds in the draft.

Position breakdown:


Running backs