Two-time Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten, who has emerged with the Dallas Cowboys as one of the league's elite young players at the position, on Saturday reached agreement on a new six-year contract, ESPN.com has learned.
The deal, in the works for most of the offseason, addresses one of Dallas' most important priorities, which was securing the three-year veteran for the long term. Witten was entering the final season of the original four-year contract he signed with the Cowboys as a third-round choice in the 2003 draft, and was scheduled to have a base salary of $1.573 million in 2006.
Without the new deal, Witten would have been eligible for unrestricted free agency next spring. The goal of both sides was to have a new deal in place before the Cowboys reported for training camp next week. Talks between the Cowboys and agent Jimmy Sexton were ramped up over the past few days.
The new contract is worth about $28 million to $29 million, and it includes $12 million in guarantees, which are split between an initial signing bonus of $6 million and a guaranteed option bonus of $6 million that is due next spring. The deal both reflects and reinforces Witten's status now among standout tight ends in the league. A former University of Tennessee star, Witten has played in the Pro Bowl each of the past two seasons.
Although he has played three seasons, Witten is only 24 years old, and he continues to improve every year.
His breakthrough came in 2004, when Witten had 87 receptions for 980 yards and six touchdowns. From a statistical standpoint, it was one of the top 12 seasons in NFL history for a tight end. He did not reach those numbers in 2005, catching 66 passes for 757 yards and six touchdowns, but Witten continued to grow into the position and clearly established himself as one of the NFL's premier middle-range receivers.
Witten also raised the level of his blocking over the last two seasons.
The Cowboys plan to use a two-tight end set as their base formation in 2006, with second-round draft choice Anthony Fasano of Notre Dame projected as a starter, and so Witten will continue to have a very prominent role in the Dallas offensive design. In the recrafted offense, Witten might be used more as an H-back, rather as a conventional tight end.
In three seasons, Witten has appeared in 47 games, with 38 starts. He has 188 receptions for 2,084 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.