Cowboys trust in John Phillips

IRVING, Texas -- Almost all of the stories about the Dallas Cowboys' 2009 draft class are about how bad it turned out to be.

Linebacker Jason Williams, the team's top pick that year, flamed out in less than two seasons. Third-round pick Robert Brewster, a guard, was another offensive line failure. Brandon Williams (fourth), DeAngelo Smith (fifth), Michael Hamlin (fifth), Stephen Hodge (sixth), Mike Mickens (seventh) and Manny Johnson (seventh) never made the team or never made an impact.

David Buehler, a fifth rounder, was an excellent kickoff specialist but an inaccurate field goal kicker. Stephen McGee (fourth) is 1-0 as a starting quarterback, but the team signed Kyle Orton as Tony Romo's backup instead of giving the job to McGee.

Outside linebacker Victor Butler (fourth) has shown flashes of pass-rush ability and the coaches probably want to play him more.

And then there's tight end John Phillips, the 208th overall pick and one of two sixth-round selections in 2009.

Phillips has proven to be one of the Cowboys' better finds in recent drafts, and they are expecting him to be a vital part of the offense this season.

"He's a guy you can count on," Romo said.

Said tight ends coach John Garrett, "He's just reliable, dependable John Phillips. You throw him the ball, he catches it. He blocks the right guy. John can go play [fullback, on the line or in the slot]. He knows the offense. He knows all of the positions. He's a guy you can really trust."

Romo and Garrett never mentioned the player Phillips will replace in 2012, Martellus Bennett. Nor did they even hint at the former second-round pick that did not have a touchdown catch after his rookie season and chose to sign with the New York Giants as a free agent.

They didn't have to.

The organization's approach to the No. 2 tight end role in the offseason spoke volumes as to how highly they think of Phillips.

The Cowboys flirted with Kellen Davis in free agency, but he chose to re-sign with Chicago. The Cowboys did not use an early pick on a tight end, choosing to wait until the sixth-round to take James Hanna out of Oklahoma.

"He's [Phillips] proven that in every way we have used him [that] he's shown great value for our football team," Garrett said.

Not that Phillips is perfect. He is not the same in-line blocker as Bennett. He will not be confused athletically with the more gifted tight ends in the NFL today. There are certain limitations to his game, but Phillips knows what he is and, more importantly, what he isn't.

And he is not entering training camp later next month believing the job is his.

"You've got to earn everything around here," Phillips said. "Nothing is given to you, so you've got to compete every day and find a role for yourself."

This ascension to Jason Witten's backup was almost put in motion in 2010. Phillips was having an excellent training camp and an even better Hall of Fame Game before he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.

His season was over before it could begin and the lockout of 2011 left him rehabbing mostly away from the team.

"When you have an injury like that, you can't really get better in the offseason," Phillips said. "You're worrying about getting it back to where it was. Instead of getting better and stronger, you're trying to just get back. This offseason, I got back to squatting and strengthening my legs in general."

Phillips finished last year with 15 catches for 101 yards and a touchdown. Bennett caught 17 passes for 144 yards and no touchdowns.

Head coach Jason Garrett loves to utilize two-tight end sets in part because of the way he can dictate to the defense in the run game or pass game. Witten has had at least 79 catches and 942 yards in the past five seasons. Bennett never materialized into the player the Cowboys hoped, or, depending on your affiliation, they did not use him properly.

During the organized team activities and minicamp, Romo did not shy away from looking at Phillips.

"I think Tony does a great job of taking what is given to him," Phillips said. "He obviously has a comfort level with Witt where he knows where he's going or the same with Laurent [Robinson] last year, getting matchups. Hopefully, I can get that trust with him where the defense is not coming to my side and he's confident to throw it."