Jason Witten's presence remains as Cowboys look for new TE

FRISCO, Texas -- Jason Witten’s name remains above the locker he occupied since the Dallas Cowboys moved into The Star in 2016. The stars representing his 11 Pro Bowls serve as a reminder of a career that should land him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

His retirement is not yet two weeks old, and teammates half expect to see him at workouts because he had been such a presence at the offseason program for his 15 years.

Coach Jason Garrett isn’t sure how long Witten’s locker will remain, but maybe there is a hidden message to it’s not being taken down.

“The guy who sat in that locker and the locker over at Valley Ranch made a big impact in this organization and this league for a long, long time,” Garrett said. “I believe his impact will be long-lasting around here. We talked about the standard he established as a player and as a person, and we’re going to try to uphold those standards that he set for 15 years in his Hall of Fame career. We wish him nothing but the best.”

The Cowboys have to carry on without Witten. Replacing him will be more difficult than replacing Dez Bryant, the franchise leader in touchdown catches. The Cowboys added veteran free-agent Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson to a group that had Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley coming back. They also took Michael Gallup in the third round.

At tight end, only Geoff Swaim has caught a pass in a regular-season game among the tight ends on the roster, and he has just nine receptions. Blake Jarwin was active for one game as a rookie in 2017. Rico Gathers has not been on the active roster in his two years. The Cowboys drafted Dalton Schultz in the fourth round.

Now ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” analyst, Witten was asked to assess what remains in his wake.

“Those guys will be OK,” Witten said. “Sitting in those meetings with them and going through this the last few years, they know what it takes to play that position, and I hope that I've shown them that.

"But they can't put the pressure on themselves. They just need to go play and feel confident in their system. Scott Linehan has had success with tight ends, so they'll figure out their roles and what they want to do, and really more than anything, they've got to get comfortable in this Dak-friendly offense that they're building in Dallas.”

While Swaim has the most experience and Gathers is the most intriguing considering his days as a power forward at Baylor and a couple of impressive catches in the preseason, Jarwin might have the most upside.

Had the Cowboys not called him up to the active roster from the practice squad halfway through last season, he might have a Super Bowl ring in his possession. The Philadelphia Eagles wanted to sign Jarwin, but he opted to remain with the Cowboys.

He came to the Cowboys as an undrafted free agent out of Oklahoma State with a reputation as a pass-catcher more than a blocker.

“There’s a lot to like about him,” Garrett said. “He’s a big guy [6-5, 260]. He’s got good length. He’s a very good athlete. He runs down the field really well. He can make plays in the passing game at the short, medium and down the field. We saw that right from the start.

"The thing where he’s really gotten better is as a blocker. We haven’t seen him in a game-type situation, but he works very hard at that part of his game. I do think he’s gotten stronger in the last year, so I think that will help him in the physical part of the game. He’s a developing player, but there’s a lot of good traits there.”

One of the reasons why Jarwin chose to sign with the Cowboys as an undrafted free agent was to have the opportunity to learn from Witten.

“Just how to be a true competitor and be a master at your own craft,” Jarwin said. “Never seen a guy beat him to the locker room in the morning and never seen a guy leave later than him after a game. To see that as a young player, as a rookie, that was really special for me growing in the future.”

The Cowboys are not in a hurry to add a veteran to the tight end mix. They want to see what they have in Swaim, Jarwin, Gathers and Schultz. Perhaps later this summer they will add another tight end.

Witten played so well and so much for so long that the Cowboys never really had to develop a tight end for the future. That changes now.

“This gives a lot of young guys an opportunity,” Garrett said. “And in a lot of ways that’s going to help them grow that much more quickly. They’re not standing there, watching, learning that way. They’re in there. They’re in the fire. I think that will help them that way.”