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.
#WASvsDAL: Why This Game Holds Increased Importance
It feels incredibly cliche to call the week 7 match-up between the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins a "must win." Especially for someone like me who values statistics, logic, and analytics in sports.
But when the analytics agree with the narratives, those narratives do tend to get my attention. And this week that would appear to be the case.
According to Brian Burke of ESPN, the Cowboys's week 7 game has the highest playoff probability leverage in the entire NFC, and is second to only the Houston Texans' big game with Jacksonville around the entire league.
Playoff leverage for week 7. DAL, WAS, PHI, CAR, MIN, CHI with a lot on the line in the NFC. HOU, CIN, and JAX in the AFC.
What does this mean? Well playoff probability leverage is pretty intuitive. Basically it is the difference between a win this week and a loss this week in terms of probability to make the playoffs.
For the Cowboys that number is at 27%, with a win over Washington catapulting their playoff probability over 50%. On the other hand, a loss would take a big hit to their playoff hopes just 7 games into the NFL season.
As you might expect, this game means a lot to the Redskins' playoff probability as well. Their playoff leverage this week is at 14%, but a win would mean "more" to Dallas than Washington based on the probabilities.
Fellow NFC East foe, the Philadelphia Eagles, also have a lot to gain/lose this Sunday, with their leverage sitting at 22%. According to Burke's model, the Eagles and Cowboys have the best chances of making the playoffs at this point, but if each team wins Sunday the Eagles will still have a higher percentage.
Of course a lot can and will change week to week, despite what the metrics say. The Cowboys still have two games remaining with the NFC East favorite Eagles this year, and will get another crack at Washington at home later in the season. Plus the Cowboys have a few NFC wild card and playoff contenders remaining on their schedule, such as the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons. (Yes, the 2-4 Falcons are very much alive in this crazy conference).
Still, the difference between 4-3 (2-0 in the division) and 3-4 (1-1 in the division) is huge, as is shown by Brian Burke's playoff probability leverage metric.
Cowboys WR Tavon Austin Skipping Surgery, May Return in 2018
A groin injury sustained last week against Jacksonville won't send Tavon Austin to injured reserve, at least for now. The Dallas Cowboys receiver has elected to forego surgery at this time, giving him a chance to return to action in 2018.
There was concern that Austin could land on IR initially following the Jaguars game, but he sought a second opinion this week. It appears that this new information was enough for Tavon and the Cowboys to decide that surgery can wait.
Sounds like WR Tavon Austin will not have surgery at this time after getting a second opinion on his groin injury. He could miss a few weeks, however. #cowboyswire
Austin should miss this Sunday's game with the Washington Redskins. He has been the team's punt returner this season and a useful tool on offense, playing mostly receiver but also lining up the backfield at times.
Despite his limited opportunities, Tavon is tied with Cole Beasley for the team lead with two receiving touchdowns in 2018.
How long Austin will remain out is unknown at this time. After the Washington game, Dallas will have their bye week and then host the Tennessee Titans on Monday Night Football.
Both of these are games that the Cowboys, feeling good after a blowout victory over Jacksonville, should be able to win without Austin. But they would certainly like him back for the Week 10 road game with the Philadelphia Eagles.
In Tavon's absence, Cole Beasley will likely field punts. We may see more of Deonte Thompson in the speed routes that Austin ran on offense, though Dallas could also finally see what recently returned Brice Butler has to offer.
With an expiring contract this year, Tavon will likely want to get back soon and trying to improve his stock for the 2019 offseason. Hopefully, he can still have a positive impact on his value and the Cowboys season in the weeks ahead.
Terrance Williams: Details, Impact of 3-Game Suspension
Terrance Williams was already missing games on injured reserve, but now the Dallas Cowboys receivers is going to lose some money as well. Williams was finally hit with a three-game suspension by the NFL, starting immediately, for his public intoxication arrest last May.
Dallas placed Terrance on IR in Week 5 just a day before their game against the Houston Texans. Williams had been struggling with a foot issue since the offseason, which included a surgery that he hadn't fully recovered from.
Many were surprised that Williams wasn't suspended to start the season, given that his arrest occurred several months prior. But when charges were eventually dropped after Terrance took part in some required alcohol education courses, it appeared the league might be letting the issue go.
However, as Cowboys fans know all too well, Roger Goodell's NFL operates its own judicial system.
In Williams' case, the suspension will only result in lost game checks. Players still get paid when on IR, but Terrance will lose that amount of his $3.5 million base salary.
Because he can serve the suspension while injured, Terrance will still be eligible to be recalled from injured reserve in December after sitting the mandatory weeks.
The real issue for Williams now is how this event, and his general fall from grace in the Cowboys offense, will affect him in the next offseason.
Terrance is in just the second season of a four-year, $17 million contract he signed in 2017. If he's released after this year, Dallas would save $2.25 million of his scheduled $4.75 million cap hit in 2019.
Williams' cap hit isn't the issue by itself. That would be a bargain for a significant contributor in your offense, even if he was just the third receiver.
But Terrance appears to have fallen well below that spot on the depth chart. Cole Beasley, Allen Hurns, and Michael Gallup are the top three receivers these days, and veteran Deonte Thompson has also been getting looks. Dallas also brought back Brice Butler a few weeks ago, though he hasn't really been worked in yet.
Not only that, but the Cowboys will have the option to recall Noah Brown from IR in just a few more weeks. He was one of their more intriguing young prospects prior to getting hurt.
Dallas could let Terrance come back next year to compete, hopefully with full health and less personal baggage. But after six seasons, they may be ready to move on to players with more room to grow.
For now, though, Terrance Williams is out of action and out some money. We'll see what the future holds.
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