Cowboys tight ends working out of Jason Witten's shadow

FRISCO, Texas -- Even though he changed his offseason approach from getting ready for a 16th season to his first as ESPN’s lead analyst for Monday Night Football, Jason Witten remains a large presence in the Dallas Cowboys’ preparation for 2018.

It has just gone from the practice field to the tight ends meeting room.

“I don’t know what tape you can bring up of the Cowboys in any sort of relevant way that Witt is not on the field,” Geoff Swaim said. “I still look at his play as something that’s a model in a lot of ways for what I want to do in terms of technique and his finish on plays and stuff like that. His nuances and the way he played the game as a route runner really stuck out to me. So it’s real evident when you watch tape and it’s always him, him, him, and it’s that way for a reason.”

Witten missed one game in 15 years on his way to becoming the Cowboys’ all-time leader in receptions and passing yards. He rarely missed practices and a lot of the ones he did miss came because the coaches told him to take a day off.

For most of his career, Witten rarely came off the field, which is why every time his potential replacements -- from Swaim to Blake Jarwin to Dalton Schultz to Rico Gathers -- turn on the film, he is always the teaching tool.

“If we have any kind of install, it’s usually him that we’re watching, whether it be his footwork or what step he’s taking on which route,” Jarwin said. “So even though he’s not in the room, we still learn from him and always look up to him.”

Doug Nussmeier would have been Witten’s eighth position coach, but the two had only a short time together before Witten opted to retire. Now Nussmeier is overseeing a group that has nine career catches (all by Swaim), 29 career games (all but one from Swaim) and nine career starts (all by Swaim).

Jarwin dressed in one game last season. Schultz was the Cowboys’ fourth-round pick in April. Gathers was a sixth-round pick in 2016 and has become something of a legend because of a few plays in preseason games.

“You’re talking about a one-of-a-kind Hall of Famer, to come into this situation, you can bounce a lot of things off Jason and get ideas, ‘Hey, how did this evolve to this? Why are we’re doing it this way?’” Nussmeier said. “With a newer, younger group, you don’t have quite as much of a resource book to go back to, so we’re building as we go.”

Through the organized team activities and the first two days of minicamp, the Cowboys have liked what they have seen from their young group. Swaim, a seventh-round pick in 2015, has taken on a leadership role in the room, while making move-the-chains type of plays in practice. Jarwin has been able to make plays down the field and has made marked improvement in the weight room. Schultz comes from a tight-end heavy offense at Stanford that incorporates a lot of what the Cowboys like to do in the running game. Gathers remains a work in progress but has made athletic plays on the outside as well.

“This is a position that we’ve wanted since we got here,” Jarwin said. “We would’ve loved to have Witt a few more years to learn from for stuff like that, but I understand why he did what he did and I respect the decision. Now that leaves the opportunity for us to carry on that legacy of the tight ends here with the Dallas Cowboys, so that’s going to be a great opportunity. I think we’ll shock a lot of people.”

Witten recorded at least 60 catches each season from 2004 to 2017. Only Jerry Rice had more 60-catch seasons (17) and only Tony Gonzalez had more consecutive 60-catch seasons (15).

Like at wide receiver, the Cowboys will go with a committee approach at tight end and hope that the group can replicate what Witten was able to do for so long.

“Everybody focuses on, ‘Well, nobody has starts, Nobody’s played,’ this and that, but everybody has to start a game at some point in time or play a first play at some point in time,” Nussmeier said. “I don’t look at that as a negative.”