With Jason Witten stating that he would return in 2017, the Dallas Cowboys already know who their starting tight end will be. The focus now turns to the depth chart and there are differing views on just what the Cowboys have in stock.
For as constant as Witten has been, there was nothing but instability behind him. Gavin Escobar fell behind Geoff Swaim during the offseason and was the third tight end until Swaim's year ended with a pectoral injury. It's also likely that they both would've both been behind James Hanna, who never played in 2016 due to a knee injury.
Escobar's rookie deal is expiring. Hanna and Swaim both have two years left in their current contracts but either can be easily released. The Cowboys have complete flexibility to rework their tight end depth chart, if desired.
Rico Gathers, the basketball player-turned-footballer from last year's draft, was also retained after spending 2016 on the practice squad. Reports are that Gathers had a great year practicing and working with the team. The Cowboys hope to cash in on his athleticism and upside soon.
At this point nobody has emerged as a clear heir apparent to Jason Witten. That's why one of my fellow Inside The Star writers wrote recently about what the Cowboys might do to prepare for the future.
I have a different take. My concern is that a major move now to find a new young tight end, either through the draft or free agency, will slam the door on any untapped potential from current options. Have we really seen the best that Geoff Swaim or Rico Gathers has to offer just yet?
Yes, Swaim and Gathers are just seventh and sixth-round draft picks. But didn't we just watch Anthony Brown emerge as a starting-quality cornerback in spite of his draft status? With how well the Cowboys have been drafting lately, is it wise to assume anything this quickly about other recent picks?
Nobody expects Gavin Escobar to be re-signed after a disappointing four years. The former second-round pick has never been able to find a consistent role in the offense. The fact that he fell behind Swaim last year says everything about where the team is on his future.
I think the Cowboys will have all they need to get through 2017 with the players already under contract. Of course, you'd have Jason Witten with the lion's share of the work. James Hanna is experienced and Dallas thought enough to give him a three-year, $8.25 million contract last offseason. They were clearly ready for him to be Witten's immediate backup.
If Dallas only keeps one more tight end than Swaim and Gathers can compete for that. Given the flashes we saw from Swaim in 2016, the winner of that contest should be a capable depth option. If Dallas wants four tight ends, as they've had several times in past seasons, then both players should be worthy of roster spots.
Given all of their concerns at other positions on both sides of the ball, the Cowboys have to be judicious about where they spend resources this offseason. Of course, we want them to find immediate upgrades and future stars at every spot. But there is never enough money or draft picks to do everything you'd like. You have to set priorities.
Based on what's already in stock, tight end is a position that Dallas can let stand if needed. They have a veteran leader, experienced backup, and two young prospects to work with. That's far more than we can say about wide receiver, cornerback, and other positions of considerable importance and potential expense.
Jason Witten's 2017 return allows the Cowboys wait one more year before they are forced to addressed the position. At the same time, it allows another year for a young prospect to rise and prove they could be the solution. That's an opportunity Dallas needs to take advantage if.