With the draft quickly approaching, here is a position-by-position look at the Dallas Cowboys' roster and their potential needs:
Analysis: Witten is entering his 16th season with the Cowboys, which would be a franchise record for length of service, and is coming off his 11th Pro Bowl season. He has played a different role in the offense the last four seasons as the Cowboys have had more of a run-first philosophy.
He still excels in his role and can find openings against defenses. He has had 14 straight seasons with at least 60 catches and 560 yards. His yardage total last year was the lowest since his rookie season. Is it a sign of age (he will turn 36 in May) or a sign of the group of routes he is asked to run? The coaches still rely on him heavily, and while they might want to cut back on his snaps in 2018, they have to be able to trust Hanna, Swaim, Jarwin, Gathers or whatever tight end to be on top of every scenario like Witten.
Hanna returned to the field last season after missing 2016 with a knee injury. He had four catches for 88 yards and the first touchdown of his career and was a dependable blocker. Swaim returned from a torn pectoral muscle suffered in 2016 to play in every game. He has every-down possibilities with better receiver skills than his stats might show and has displayed the willingness to block.
Jarwin spent most of last season on the practice squad and has a lot of fans in the building. He came with a pass-catching reputation but also showed he was willing blocker in training camp. Gathers remains a mystery as he enters his third season. He spent 2016 on the practice squad and missed last season with a concussion after making two impressive touchdown catches in the preseason. Has he completed the transition from Baylor basketball player to tight end?
Draft need: That Witten has the longest running contract of the five tight ends on the roster tells you the Cowboys should look at the position in the draft.
Witten has said he is playing on a year-to-year basis at this point, while Hanna and Swaim are set to be unrestricted free agents when the season ends. The Cowboys can’t know what they have in Jarwin or Gathers, despite the legion of fans who believe Gathers is ready to be a breakout player.
The Cowboys have selected a tight end in the second round of the draft in the Witten era three times (Anthony Fasano, Martellus Bennett and Gavin Escobar). None were able to push Witten off the field or at least limit his playing time, but Fasano and Bennett had long careers. Escobar just joined his fifth team, signing this week with the Dolphins.
Spending another early pick on a tight end makes sense as the Cowboys transition to a new position coach in Doug Nussmeier. Tight ends in the Cowboys’ system have to block, and with the way the game is played today those are more difficult to find. Jason Garrett has mentioned that as an issue for years. This draft appears to have good depth, but more pass-catching types than true tight ends.
Prediction: It might not be with a second-round pick, but the Cowboys could draft a tight end as early as the third round, depending on the holes they fill in the first two rounds. It’s possible if they are wiped out at No. 19 they would look to trade down and acquire more picks that would allow them to get the tight end they want. In 2006, 2008 and 2013, the Cowboys tried to find a tight end to pair with Witten, but it didn’t work out. This time they might have to find the successor to Witten.