The Dallas Cowboys' biggest weakness on the offensive side of the football is most obviously the tight end group. The wide receiver group is second, but it's a distant second to the uncertainty and inexperience at the tight end position currently.
Even before Jason Witten up and retired, the Cowboys weren't in great shape -- mostly because of age-related decline -- but they had a reliable starter who could give them 50-60 snaps a game and could contribute on third downs and in the red zone.
The future Hall of Famer is gone to the Monday Night Football booth on ESPN, leaving an Armageddon-sized crater behind. Gone are 87 targets, 63 catches, 560 yards, and most importantly five touchdown receptions from 2017.
Trying to be the next man up to fill the void are Geoff Swaim, Blake Jarwin, Dalton Schultz, and Rico Gathers. Combined, they have nine catches for 94 yards and zero touchdowns in the NFL (all from the Swaim Train).
As we try to project who might take the lead role among this tight end group, as opposed to looking for one guy to take 90% of the snaps at the position like Witten might, we should probably look at this as a rotational deployment.
Or a Tight End by Committee.
Let's look at how each guy could be deployed based on potential formations that the Dallas Cowboys like to use.
Geoff Swaim will be in the game when the Dallas Cowboys go with two and three tight end formations. He's got the most experience and Jason Garrett likes to use the guys he knows. Geoff Swaim will get the first shot at running with the first team as the veteran player of the group.
At the moment, Swaim is the most well-rounded of the bunch. A reliable tight end who has caught passes in meaningful games for the team, even if it isn't a lot of them. While experience isn't everything, it matters when looking at players who are going to get playing time.
Swaim might not have the highest upside in the group, but he's a trusted and reliable player.
The Dallas Cowboys signed Tight End Blake Jarwin to the practice squad as an undrafted free agent in 2017.
The Cowboys front office was so high on him that they activated him from the practice squad toward the end of the 2017 season to make sure he wasn't signed by the Philadelphia Eagles.
He's a player who could fill a "move tight end" role on the team, using him in 11 and 12 personnel packages as a big slot receiver in certain matchups. Dak Prescott has gone on record about the team wanting to utilize more "run-pass options" (or RPOs) this season, and Jarwin's size and receiving ability immediately make him a threat.
I could see them using Swaim as the in-line tight end and then splitting Jarwin out wide to take advantage of linebacker matchups the team likes.
He can be a threat down the seam and in the middle of the field that Witten hasn't been in a couple of years because of the aforementioned age-related decline.
The Cowboys have always done a good job finding and developing undrafted free agents and when Bryan Broaddus from DallasCowboys.com was asked who could be the next great undrafted free agent, he had Jarwin on his mind.
"The way that the coaching staff was using Blake Jarwin tells me that they’re expecting big things from him. He has been splitting snaps with Geoff Swaim throughout these practices for the starting tight end spot, so he’s going to have a chance to grow."
Bryan Broaddus - DallasCowboys.com
Dalton Schultz is probably the most intriguing of the prospects. He was an impact player for the Stanford Cardinal and running back Bryce Love as they racked up more than 2,000 yards rushing in 2017.
His opportunities as a pass catcher were limited, but he flashed some tools that show he has the ability to be a solid receiving tight end in the NFL.
At the moment, he's probably the second tight end in the game when the team goes to two and three tight end formations.
Typically, tight ends struggle to adapt to the NFL in their rookie seasons because they aren't often asked to block as much. Schultz already comes with a bit of that pedigree.
The challenges for him will be learning the nuances of an NFL playbook as well as his responsibilities in the passing game.
The most hyped of all the tight ends for the Dallas Cowboys is Tight End Rico Gathers.
In the 2017 preseason, he flashed a ton of potential in the passing game, showing off his hands and athleticism as he caught a couple of touchdown passes. After he suffered a concussion, he was placed on IR for most of the season and really didn't get another shot. He comes into camp with a lot to prove, mostly that he can be a reliable option for the team on the 53-man roster.
He's still super raw and has more to learn in the blocking aspect of the game, and the team is taking a tough love approach to Rico in hopes that they can motivate him to earn a larger role than what he's looking at right now.
While we are all intrigued by the prospect of Gathers in the passing game, he's on the outside looking in at the moment for a team that may not be able to keep four tight ends.
Like Jarwin, as it stands now, Gathers' best role would be in passing situations in 11 personnel (one running back and three tight ends) or as a move tight end lined up in the slot to take advantage of linebacker or safety mismatches.
He has the athleticism to beat linebackers and the size to box out defensive backs, and as fans of the team, we should hope that he earns a role on this squad because they definitely could use his size and athleticism in the red zone. But I wouldn't hold my breath on it.
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According to reports, the tight ends that have been ahead of the pack in OTAs and minicamps have been Blake Jarwin and Geoff Swaim. Training camp is a whole different ball game, though, as the team will put pads on and the competition will heighten.
Over the next couple months we'll find out if one of these tight ends rises to the top, or if a committee approach is in store for the Dallas Cowboys in 2018.
Takeaway Tuesday: Cowboys Have a Championship Defense
The Dallas Cowboys are not only breathing in playoff contention, but they're now the favorites to crown themselves as the NFC East champions in 2018. It's pretty impressive how the tables can turn so quickly in the NFL. Dallas played very well against the Atlanta Falcons last Sunday and we learned quite a bit from them as they bounced back to .500. Here's this week's Takeaway Tuesday! Enjoy it as much as you did Brett Maher's game winning field goal a couple of days ago.
Cowboys Have a Championship Defense
Despite taking steps in the right direction, it's impossible to compare this offense to units like the Chiefs, Saints and Rams. However, it's the Cowboys' defense that could be labeled as a championship unit. Facing an offense with such a strong WR core, allowing only one touchdown on the road is impressive.
The Cowboys sacked Matt Ryan three times and were constantly causing pressures. Byron Jones was great once again, allowing only two catches in passes thrown in his direction. And of course, the kid who's been impressing us all, Leighton Vander Esch continued to play out of his mind. He should be the Defensive Rookie of the Year front runner at this point.
The Cowboys' defense is one of the best in the NFL right now, and any offense will have a tough time facing them. It'll be intriguing to see if they can take the next step and stop a high-powered unit like the Saints in a few days.
Offensive Line Woes Are Gone
The offense has improved a lot the last couple of games. Although there is still a lot to work on, they're not struggling as they were in the first half of the season. The offensive line is a huge part of this. With Marc Colombo at OL coach, things have looked very different in Dallas.
Ezekiel Elliott: "I feel great. I feel fast. I feel physical. I feel very comfortable with the running schemes. We just got to keep rolling. That's what's important. We just got to keep rolling.
Ezekiel Elliott has been on a roll the past two weeks and his comments regarding how he feels about the running schemes shouldn't go unnoticed. The offensive line wasn't playing as well as they are right now earlier in the year. Dak Prescott is noticeably more comfortable in the pocket.
It's intriguing to know what will happen at left guard for the Cowboys. With Connor Williams injured, Xavier Su'a-Filo has done a good job filling in for him. Williams has the upside, but should Dallas mess up the mojo this OL has lately?
Dak Prescott: Clutch QB
Dak Prescott continues to be criticized by fans while he keeps proving us why it's not that easy to move on from him. The guy is far from the perfect passer, yet he's been clutch time and time again. This time he did so on the road on an impressive two minute drill.
With 1:46 on the clock, Prescott marched his team down to the Falcons' 24 yard line. He managed to give his team another game winning drive in consecutive weeks. The Cowboys' young quarterback needed a confidence boost and this is perfect for him. He needs to keep it up if the team is going to finish the season as the NFC East champions.
Since entering the NFL, Dak has 12 game winning drives. As frustrating as his play is at times, he will not be easy to replace if the Cowboys decide to move on from this guy down the road. Hopefully, they don't have to. I, for one, believe Dak can be way better with a proper coaching staff. But that's a discussion for another day.
Now, it's time to celebrate the Cowboys' victory and get ready for a short week as the Cowboys play the Washington Redskins on Thursday.
Geoff Swaim Needs Surgery, Should the Cowboys even use a Tight End?
Well, the injury woes continue to mount for the Dallas Cowboys with news coming down this evening that Tight End Geoff Swaim broke a bone in his wrist in the 22-19 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday. The injury will need surgery which will mean Swaim will be out a while, if not for the rest of the season.
Geoff Swaim broke a bone in his wrist yesterday and is going to need surgery. Sounds like it might not be season-ending, but he won't be available Thursday #cowboyswire
In previous seasons this wouldn't be much of a blow to the offense, but Geoff Swaim has been the only tight end that the Cowboys have ben able to rely on this season. Dalton Schultz is a rookie, Blake Jarwin's been inconsistent, and Rico Gathers still isn't fully trusted. With the Dallas Cowboys and Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan's insistence on using a tight end, it seems there's a huge hole at the position heading into Sunday's first place showdown with the Washington Redskins.
But in reality, is there?
For weeks, I've been screaming for this team to use more 10 personnel (one running back and zero tight ends) as its primary passing formation because it gets their best pass catching weapons on the field at the same time. Swaim has been solid and consistent in his first year as a starter, but the rest of the tight end group has disappointed. So why even run a tight end out on the field.
The Dallas Cowboys have options that could replace the tight end in the passing game without actually using a tight end.
First, they could use Noah Brown as the de facto tight end. He's been one of the best blockers on the team in his first two seasons with the team and this is the type of role he's made for. Split him out wide and motion him in tight when you want to run. He can be a threat down the seem and in the red zone with his athleticism. He'd be a mismatch for the linebackers that try to cover him and could open space underneath for Cole Beasley. Brown is also a really good run blocker, so having him on the field doesn't negate what you want to do in the run game.
The other player the Cowboys coaching staff could work into more of the tight end route responsibilities is Allen Hurns. Hurns is a really good route runner, especially in the middle of the field, where the Dallas Cowboys haven't received a lot of production. You can put Hurns in as the fourth wide receiver and split him a couple of yards off the tackle to give him a cleaner release than a TE might get and have him run "Y-option," shallow post routes, or drags. He can be a threat in the passing game if put in situations where he can excel. See below for something Allen Hurns does really well.
In fact, by going four wide receivers with Brown or Hurns on the field, it's possible the opposing defense is forced to run more of dime packages against the Dallas Cowboys 10 personnel.
Why would you want to get teams into dime packages?
Most NFL teams have two pretty good linebackers that they can deploy in nickel situations, but teams rarely have four corners that they can put on the field and feel really good about. So, if you can force teams to remove one of their 11 best players for a backup corner back or safety, you are already winning that matchup.
That matchup would also get you into much more favorable defensive fronts to run against. Even if the opposition put seven or eight in the box, it would be against smaller personnel like corners and safeties instead of a second linebacker.
Running 10 personnel as their base offense moving forward would be unconventional, but with an opportunity to take control of first place in the NFC East on Thanksgiving, now is not the time for conventionality.
Cowboys WR Michael Gallup on Personal Leave; Team Offers Support
Dallas Cowboys rookie receiver Michael Gallup suffered a personal tragedy on Sunday, being informed that his brother committed suicide. He is now on personal leave away from the team, and both Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett have given their full support to Gallup during this difficult time.
According to reports, Gallup was unaware of his brother's death until immediately after the Cowboys' win over the Atlanta Falcons. Michael did not return with the team to Dallas and remained in Atlanta to be with his family.
A formal statement was made by owner Jerry Jones yesterday regarding Gallup:
“Our team and our entire organization are deeply saddened by the news of Michael’s loss. His family is our family. We share in the grief and pain that comes with something so personal and tragic. We offer our support, care and comfort for Michael, and we ask that all of those who have sons and daughters and brothers and sisters join us in keeping Michael and his wonderful family in their thoughts and prayers.”
Throughout his time owning the Cowboys, Jerry has built a reputation for personal loyalty and compassion with his players. His head coach is no different.
As he addressed the media Monday, Jason Garrett did not get into football matters when addressing Gallup's situation:
“This is a very challenging time for him. We’ll take it moment by moment, day by day, and give him all of our love and all of our support.”
While Michael is certainly dealing with something far more important than football, his availability for Thursday's Thanksgiving game against the Washington Redskins does come into question.
The Cowboys have a short week to prepare for Washington, and Gallup has started their last five games. If the rookie has to sit, which seems probable given the timeframe, we can expect more playing time for Allen Hurns and Noah Brown.
Whatever happens happens on that front. Our focus is on Michael Gallup during this sad time, with him and his family in our collective thoughts as Cowboys fans and fellow humans.
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