It’s official: Jason Witten will retire after 15 seasons with the Dallas Cowboys. Witten’s next step is an ESPN television booth, and there’s little doubt the one after that will be in Canton, Ohio, as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But how long will Witten have to wait for his gold jacket? Will it be when he is first eligible in five years?
Some believe his body of work warrants a first-ballot selection, while others view a first-ballot selection as rarefied air reserved for quarterbacks with multiple Super Bowl rings. The challenge of a first-ballot selection didn’t stop three first-year-eligible candidates from getting the nod this year.
But of the eight tight ends to make the Hall of Fame from the modern era, none has made it on his first attempt. Will Tony Gonzalez change that when he’s eligible in 2019?
ESPN insiders, including two who will have a vote, offer their take on Witten’s chance to get in on his first try.
Todd Archer, ESPN Cowboys reporter: Tight ends generally don’t make it as first-ballot Hall of Famers, but Witten should. The numbers are undeniable. He is fourth in the history of the NFL in receptions. The only tight end with more receptions and yards is Gonzalez. Is there a doubt Gonzalez won’t make it into the Hall of Fame on his first try? If the Cowboys’ lack of playoff success hurts Witten down the road, then it should hurt Gonzalez as well. He was part of one playoff win. Witten had two. Witten’s greatness is not just in his 1,152 catches and 12,448 yards -- it was in his consistency and durability over a 15-year career that made him one of the all-time greats. He was there year after year, game after game, play after play. He recorded at least 60 catches in 14 of his 15 seasons. Only Jerry Rice and Gonzalez have more 60-catch seasons. Tight end has become a glorified wide receiver position, but Witten was a throwback. He could block. The Cowboys would have him block elite pass-rushers at times without help. He did his job in the running game too. Witten didn’t have flash to his game, but he had a ton of substance. The type of substance that should make him a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Dan Graziano, national NFL writer: I’ll tend to defer to the Hall of Fame voters on our panel, mainly because I don’t always understand everything that goes into those decisions. And I know “first-ballot” is an important qualifier here because the process sometimes requires qualified people to wait. But sitting at fourth all time in receptions, 21st in receiving yards and having not missed a game since 2013 while playing a “dirty work” position for the Cowboys, Witten feels like a no-brainer Hall of Famer to me. I’d be interested to hear the case against him.
Domonique Foxworth, The Undefeated senior writer and former NFL cornerback: Determining whether a player is first-ballot or not is based on many factors that are out of the player’s control. But in this case I think Witten will get in on the first ballot because his production will please stat junkies and his reputation as a great blocker and great person will win over the more emotional voters. And working in a prominent role in the media will keep him in the public eye and bolster his image, should he choose it as a second career.
Jeff Legwold, ESPN Broncos reporter and member of HOF selection committee: A Hall of Famer is a Hall of Famer whether he’s a first-ballot pick or not. Rayfield Wright and Floyd Little may have waited decades to get their gold jackets, but they are every bit the Hall of Famers that Joe Montana and Ray Lewis are. That said, after two decades on the selection committee, history has shown that first-year slam dunks are rare -- this year notwithstanding, when three first-time-eligible finalists were selected for enshrinement (Lewis, Brian Urlacher and Randy Moss). At Jason Witten’s position, Shannon Sharpe was a finalist three times before he was selected, as were Ozzie Newsome, Dave Casper and Kellen Winslow. And John Mackey, who many consider one of the best, or the best, tight end in league history, was a finalist five times before he was selected for enshrinement. So Witten’s body of work, how he played and his presence in the locker room certainly make him Canton-worthy, but a first-ballot trip will depend on the other finalists and how long some of them have waited for the same honor.
Mike Sando, senior NFL writer and member of HOF selection committee: It's tough for me to envision a class of finalists strong enough to keep Witten from making it through on his first try. He has the production and longevity, ranking second to Gonzalez among tight ends for receptions and receiving yardage. He was a well-rounded player, not strictly a receiver. Witten also has the accolades (11 Pro Bowls). He appears exemplary in the key areas.
Aaron Schatz, editor-in-chief of Football Outsiders: This is pretty simple. Jason Witten will be a Hall of Famer. He will not be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. There simply are too many players deserving of a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and limiting election to five players each year creates a backlog. You get in on the first ballot only if you were clearly the best player at your position for most of your career. For tight ends, that means Tony Gonzalez, not Witten. Marvin Harrison didn't get in on the first ballot. Terrell Owens didn't. Jason Witten won't either.