FRISCO, Texas -- As Jason Witten gets ready for what will be a franchise-record 16th season with the Dallas Cowboys, he knows this might be the year the team drafts his successor with an early-round pick.
"They've got to find the best roster that they can do," Witten said last week at the inaugural Jason Witten College Man of the Year Award dinner. "It would be foolish to get sensitive and worry about that. You've got to be able to compete and play at a high level. I welcome that and certainly I would help that guy in any way and I think the most important thing is let's make our football team better. I know Stephen and Jerry [Jones] and Will [McClay] and coach [Jason] Garrett, they're doing everything they can to put us in position in free agency and the draft to do that. Tight end position may be one of those spots."
Their plan with those selections was to pair the pick with Witten as part of a strong two-tight-end set that could be dominant with the run, especially with Bennett, and versatile with the pass, especially with Escobar. The latter was selected in part because the Cowboys were going to emulate what the New England Patriots did with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
It never worked out. Fasano was traded after the 2007 season. Bennett caught four touchdown passes, all as a rookie, and left in free agency. Escobar, who also left as a free agent, never had more than nine catches in a season.
Witten has finished first or second on the team in receptions the past 11 seasons, including 2017 when he caught 63 passes for 560 yards and five touchdowns. In the past five seasons, he has not played fewer than 96 percent of the snaps, including 98 percent in 2017.
After managing his practice work the past few seasons, there have been whispers this offseason of cutting back on Witten's snaps in order to theoretically make him better late in games or late in the season.
To do so, the Cowboys need to have a tight end to do what Witten does in the running and passing games. James Hanna and Geoff Swaim have worked into smaller roles in the offense. The Cowboys like the potential of Blake Jarwin. Rico Gathers is a fan favorite based on two preseasons.
Can any of them handle a bigger role? Would a potential early draft pick?
Last season, Garrett, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and quarterback Dak Prescott said Witten, who turns 36 in May, showed no signs of slowing down. Witten would not be coming back for another season if he did not think he could play at a high level and already has begun the process of getting ready for 2018.
"There's no other way. I've got to improve," Witten said. "Another year older, you know, that's another 1,000 snaps underneath that I have behind me. So I'll do it again and I think it'll be important for me to perform at a high level. It's a bottom line, right? Does the pitch count kick in? My job is to be able to perform for three hours or three and a half hours every Sunday and I've got to work my tail off to get to the point where I can do it, and that's what motivates me."
The ultimate motivation is a Super Bowl. Already the franchise leader in receptions and receiving yards and second to Tony Gonzalez among tight ends in NFL history, Witten does not need more catches or yards to build a Hall of Fame resume.
He is playing because he believes he can play a major role in winning a championship.
He said if the Cowboys draft another tight end it would not serve as "fuel," to dispel the notion he can no longer do it. He is at a different place in his career than when the Cowboys selected Fasano, Bennett and Escobar.
"I feel like if you don't have [the desire to win a title] you don't need to be playing," Witten said. "If you've got to convince yourself of that or, 'Hey, can I amp up for one more?' That's already a sign [to call it quits]. And that's never been the case with me to this point. I've never had that feeling. I'm sure I will at some point because it is demanding. It's taxing.
"But it goes hand in hand. It's both mental and physical. Maybe what you lose physically you gain mentally in your education, knowledge, how you study and see it and how quickly you see it and break it down. That's an advantage for sure being able to be smart and make quick decisions. But you are, you're fighting off Father Time and you've got to work your ass off to do it. Certainly I've tried to do that over the course of the last few years."