When Jason Witten up and retired just before the start of the second round of the NFL Draft this past offseason, the Cowboys were left with an enormous hole at the Tight End position. The Cowboys had opportunities to address the position in the draft in the second and third round, but stayed with their pre-draft plan and addressed it in the middle rounds by selecting Dalton Schultz in the fourth round.
The message the coaches and front office preached was they would attempt to fill the production void left by the future hall of famer with a committee approach with veteran Geoff Swaim, Rico Gathers, Blake Jarwin, and the newly added rookie Schultz.
It was a risky approach at a position that had provided elite production for a decade and a half, but given when the void was created, they didn't really have many options.
Credit the Dallas Cowboys front office and coaching staff for not panicking and staying the course at the position with players that they've been rather fond of. In particular, Blake Jarwin, who the team promoted from the practice squad late last season when the Philadelphia Eagles came calling attempting to sing Jarwin to their roster.
While they're going to be hard pressed to get the same elite-level production out of players with such limited experience in the NFL, as they did out of Witten. They're approach may not have paid off early in the season, but over the last eight games, the tight end position has been really productive for the Cowboys.
If we go back and look at the leading receiver at tight end, the Cowboys got. Pretty solid season out of their group of imtight ends. With Geoff Swaim, Rico Gathers, and Blake Jarwin each leading the position in at least one game (though Rico's two targets, no receptions game hardly led the team), the TE1 combined for 63 targets, 50 receptions, 530 yards, and four touchdowns.
Those numbers at first glance may not look great, but they sit just outside of the top ten if you compare them to individual tight end performances in 2018.
Obviously that isn't prime or peak Jason Witten who was putting together 80-100 catch seasons during his prime like clockwork. Even if you just look at what Jason Witten has done since he turned 30, it's still not matching his production. From his age 30 season on, Witten averaged 106 targets per season for 76 receptions, 756 yards, and four touchdowns. Where the 2018 tight end production does compare favorably is to Jason Witten's 2017 where he saw 87 targets, caught 63 passes for 560 yards, and five touchdowns.
Found this interesting: Cowboys tight ends in 2018: 68 catches, 710 yards, 4 TDs Cowboys tight ends in 2017: 69 catches, 673 yards, 6 TDs
Jason Witten's 2017 and the Cowboys TE1 2018 is very similar in production.
However, with what Blake Jarwin's done over the last four games of the season, if you project that over a 16 game season, you'd get 80 receptions on 100 targets for 912 yards and 12 touchdowns. Now that production looks a lot like what Jason Witten did for much of his career.
Obviously, it's not as simple as taking a four game sample size and projecting it out, but we can see why the Cowboys were so excited about Jarwin as a player. He's displayed excellent hands, route running, and athleticism since he's been unleashed in the last four weeks.
Dallas Cowboys undrafted rookie TE Blake Jarwin has now done something that Jason Witten never did.
As if Blake Jarwin’s game wasn’t awesome enough, he was able to accomplish something that Witten never did; catch three touchdowns in a game. That’s pretty incredible considering how many passes he caught over the course of his career.
The Cowboys brass took a huge risk in attemptin to fill the Grand Canyon-sized hole left by Jason Witten’s retirement. While they started out slowly, the tight end group for the Cowboys is playing really good football right now and could have a huge impact on how deep the Dallas Cowboys go in the playoffs this year.
Cowboys Wishlist: 3 Things I Want to See in Kellen Moore’s Offense
The Dallas Cowboys offense will mostly remain the same in terms of players. However, a big change is coming with new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore taking over the talented unit. In a special edition of Cowboys Wishlist, I'll share the three big things I want to see in Moore's offense in 2019.
Let me know what you want to see in the comments section below or tweet me @MauNFL!
Wish #1: Frequent Read Option
Despite Dak Prescott's skills as a runner, rarely did we see the Cowboys run read option plays. For a team that seems to have the perfect duo for these plays, they certainly seemed to have wasted it over the last few years. This is an offense that has plenty of talent to be struggling as much as they did in the red zone last year.
Imagine being concerned about Ezekiel Elliott getting the ball and Dak Prescott keeping it at the same time? Not to mention the play action threat with a group of receivers led by Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and Randall Cobb... oh, and a veteran tight end in Jason Witten who might be older but whose hands are very reliable.
The Athletic's Bob Sturm pointed out Prescott's average of 4.46 yards per carry and 18 touchdowns in the red zone between 2016 and 2018. The league average for all players is 2.64 and there's no one close to over four yards and over 10 touchdowns in the league. Dak has been dangerous when using his legs and yet, the Cowboys haven't used the read option as much. I hope that changes with Kellen Moore taking over.
Wish #2: Use Tight Ends More
I'm still impressed by how little the Cowboys utilized their tight ends in 2018. In fact, as Bobby Belt noted on Twitter a few months ago, this has happened consistently in Scott Linehan's career.
One thing you consistently see when Scott Linehan takes over an offense is a drop in the starting tight end's production. Randy McMichael, Byron Chamberlain, and Jason Witten all saw drops in yards per catch, receptions per game, and yards per game once Linehan took over.
Last year, Blake Jarwin had only three games with more than three targets. In those games, he racked up 56, 45 and 119 yards. This makes me wonder if the real problem at tight end last season was more about how they were utilized rather than the players at the position.
With Jason Witten back, Jarwin and the future Hall of Famer could split the snaps. Hopefully, Kellen Moore gives them a more active role on the offense. I really think we'll see way more from them.
Wish #3: Pre-Snap Motion
Pre-snap motion is truly a thing of beauty. The simple fact of getting a player in motion before the ball is snapped can go a long way to keep a defense in its toes and cause confusion to set up a successful play. In Boise State, Moore ran an offense that heavily relied on pre-snap motions.
The first year offensive coordinator won't turn the Cowboys into the new L.A. Rams but he can add this kind of trickery to help Dallas take the next step offensively. Dak Prescott will be playing his fourth year of professional football and adding this to the offense will only help the young QB by making his reads even easier.
How Will Coaching Changes Impact Cowboys’ Backup QB Battle?
There has been a big shakeup on the Dallas Cowboys' coaching staff in 2019. Scott Linehan is out, Kellen Moore was promoted to Offensive Coordinator, and Jon Kitna was hired as the new Quarterbacks Coach. What impact will the changes have on the QB position, and especially when it comes to the battle for the backup role?
The contenders remain Cooper Rush, a third-year player who joined Dallas as an undrafted free agent in 2017, and 2018 fifth-round pick Mike White. Rush was the backup QB last season, but had a major experience edge over his rookie competition. That playing field will be more level now in White's second season.
The changes in the coaching staff even things out all the more. There is a new OC with new ideas and things to learn, and new QB coach with his own style and preferences. Rush and White are starting over together, in a way, with this new personnel.
Jon Kitna is especially intriguing in this conversation. Moore was here last year but Kitna brings a fresh set of eyes to the QB position. He also brings the resume of being an exceptional backup quarterback during his playing career, understanding what it takes to be a success in the role.
Kitna may see and appreciate things that neither Kellen Moore or Scott Linehan could.
For example, what made Cooper Rush take a backward step in his play from the 2017 preseason to last year? He was the undrafted underdog that took the backup QB job away from Kellen Moore two years ago, but last year was the incumbent trying to hold on to his spot against a new prospect.
Did Mike White being a drafted player get in Rush's head?
Jon Kitna spent a long time fighting off younger options. He may be able to help Cooper deal with that pressure.
Or perhaps it will go the other way; Kitna's fresh perspective could help push White up the depth chart. From the new QB coach's own lips, he's approaching this situation without preconceived notions:
"For me, it’s more of a clean slate. I just want to come in and help those guys and help them progress in their careers. If you get the best out of them, that’s going to be good for us at an organization.”
A few months ago I was pushing for Dallas to sign a veteran backup. With the Super Bowl in reach, I don't want to see the season go down the drain if something happens to Dak Prescott. It'd be nice to have our own Nick Foles ready to go.
While it doesn't appear the Cowboys will go that route, I'm at least comforted by having Jon Kitna's voice in the room. He could have a tremendous influence on Cooper Rush and Mike White, and perhaps upgrade the QB2 position even without a roster move.
If nothing else, I'm going to be more confident in the backup quarterback decision knowing that Kitna was involved in making it.
Despite Changes, Cowboys Offense Still Runs Through Ezekiel Elliott
We've talked a lot this offseason about the changes at Offensive Coordinator and slot receiver, or how Jason Witten's return will impact the tight end position. But while all of these will impact the Dallas Cowboys' offense in 2019, the constant feature remains Running Back Ezekiel Elliott and the rushing attack.
From 2016 to 2018, since the Cowboys drafted Elliott, Dallas has ranked 1st, 3rd, and 10th among NFL teams in "run vs. pass" play calls. That's only logical; you don't spend a fourth-overall pick on a RB and then not make him the featured player in your offense.
Zeke has certainly rewarded Dallas' decision; Elliott has led the league in total rushing two out of three years, and he led in yards-per-game in 2017 while dealing with his suspension.
Leaning on Elliott has been smart business based on his effectiveness, plus the investment in the offensive line over the last several years.
Dallas has now sunk three first-round picks (Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin), one second (Connor Williams), and now two thirds (Chaz Green and Connor McGovern) on building up their front wall. They've spent a lot of money to keep their All-Pro guys around, plus La'el Collins.
Some would try to paint the run-heavy approach as how the team is trying to hide the weaknesses of Dak Prescott at quarterback. But in 2014, with DeMarco Murray at RB and Tony Romo at QB, the Cowboys were still 3rd in the league in rush vs. pass attempts.
This isn't about Zeke or Dak, or any other specific player. This about a team philosophy that starts at the top with Jason Garrett, and that isn't going to change even with Kellen Moore taking over as the new Offensive Coordinator.
We're all excited to see what new wrinkles comes from getting rid of Scott Linehan. We highly anticipate the development of Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup in the offense, coupled with the addition of Randall Cobb. We're salivating at what Blake Jarwin might become under the tutelage of the great Jason Witten.
Heck, maybe we'll see fullback Jamize Olawale's receiving skills put to more use. Perhaps gadget guys like Tavon Austin or rookie Tony Pollard will be deployed in more creative ways.
And yes, Dak Prescott's growth is another major factor in Dallas' 2019 success. It's especially interesting, and even concerning, as talks are ongoing about his long-term contract.
But make no mistake, this is still the Ezekiel Elliott show. Even if a few more of his carries become receptions in Moore's scheme, Zeke should still get the lion's share of the touches.
That's why this week's news about his incident in Las Vegas is so troubling. It probably won't lead to a suspension, but we saw what happened in 2017 when Elliott was missing for over a third of the season.
While Dallas should be better able to withstand losing Zeke now than it was two years ago, it may still be more than Prescott, Cooper, and the rest could handle. It definitely wouldn't put the Cowboys in good position to compete for a Super Bowl.
In the end, the 2019 will still come down to how well Dallas runs the ball. It's the engine; nothing else matters if the rushing game doesn't set everyone else up for success.
Don't ever take it for granted. This is still Ezekiel Elliott's offense.
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