Since 2004, tight end Jason Witten has started all but two games for the Dallas Cowboys. While he is set to return in 2018, the team should already be thinking about the future. As such, they may take a new TE high in this upcoming draft.
While one would expect Witten to retire after this year, nothing is certain. The elder statesman of the roster, Jason can likely remain a Cowboy as long as his heart desires and his body allows. He's too much of a leader and ally of the coaching staff for anything less.
Witten's contact runs until 2021. While that was simply an accounting mechanism to keep his salary cap hit lower, it does mean he can technically keeping coming back until it expires or the team releases him.
It would be nice if Dallas was already grooming somebody to take Witten's spot, but none of their current backups have shown enough to merit that assumption.
Part of that is on the coaches and Jason, though. His stranglehold on the TE position has left few snaps for other guys to ever show their stuff. Not even second-round picks like Martellus Bennett or Gavin Escobar could get much run behind the cornerstone Cowboy.
The rare glimpses we've had of Geoff Swaim and James Hanna make them seem like competent players with upside. But “rare” is the key word there, and guys taken in the sixth and seventh rounds of their drafts aren't expected to take over such a critical offensive position.
What's more, both may not be long for the roster.
Swaim's rookie contract expires after 2018. He may earn a new deal to remain a depth piece, but it would probably be similar to the modest contract that Hanna got in 2016.
Speaking of, Hanna is now in the final year of that deal. He turns 29 in July and is unlikely to get a new contract after this season.
In fact, Hanna may not even make this year's squad as Dallas can create $2.75 million in cap space by releasing him. If the team ends up pursuing a trade for Earl Thomas, even with the savings from releasing Dez Bryant, they might need a little more cap room to facilitate that deal and their other offseason business.
Even if not for cap reasons, Dallas may go with younger players in 2018. They may want to give Swaim more responsibility to see if he merits a new deal.
They may also want to finally see what Rico Gathers can do.
While quarterback Cooper Rush was the star of the 2017 preseason, Gathers wasn't far behind. Now entering his third season, the converted basketball player has yet to appear in a regular season game.
Officially, Gathers missed last season with issues related to a concussion as well as injuries to his jaw and neck. But there is also talk that the coaches aren't sold on his attitude, which typically means work ethic.
Rico has a lot of ground to make up from not playing football in college. While he can be a dynamic threat against backup defenders in preseason, it takes way more to earn regular season snaps.
Some guys couldn't make the transition no matter how hard they tried. If Gathers isn't giving max effort, he may never get a chance.
Also on the roster is Blake Jarwin, an undrafted free agent last year. The Cowboys thought enough to sign him to the active roster last October to avoid his being poached by the Eagles, but that's about all we know.
So while the team has some intriguing players behind Witten, the prospect of Jason's retirement next year means they want to be ready. There are some solid Day 2 prospects in this draft class, and Dallas will certainly have them on the radar.
While I wouldn't expect a TE in the first round, a Friday selection is a strong bet.
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