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.
Cowboys Wishlist: Dress Rehearsal Edition
In the NFL, the third preseason week is often referred to as the "Dress Rehearsal." It's usually the week in which starters get the most playing time. That has changed lately, with plenty of teams deciding to take care of their key players instead of risking them on the field. However, the Dallas Cowboys have played their starters on their first two games and there's no reason to believe that will change versus the Texans today.
Here is my wishlist for the Cowboys vs Texans "Dress Rehearsal!" Let me know what your wishes for tonight's game are in the comments section below or tweet me @MauNFL!
Wish #1: Justin Phillips Locks Up a Roster Spot
Phillips has been one of the most surprising players this offseason and preseason. The Cowboys are set at linebacker, but Phillips has made sure to be a tough guy to cut. Last week, he had a remarkable interception against the Rams. Despite making a first step toward the line, he managed to adjust and made the play. He has followed it up with more plays in practice.
If he keeps it up, the Cowboys won't be able to cut him. He has the potential to be a force on special teams and a quality backup.
Wish #2: Devin Smith Makes Things Interesting
The battle for the final wide receiver spots is at full-go. Devin Smith has shined lately, and has risen as a serious candidate to make the roster. However, it seems like other wide receivers have the upper-hand as of now. Earlier this week, I made my Cowboys WR Power Rankings and had Devin Smith at #7.
His TD catch versus the Rams last week was pretty impressive, and I wish he makes a few more plays to make the debate all the more interesting.
Wish #3: Tony Pollard Does It Again
Fifth-round rookie Tony Pollard
stole was the show last weekend as he racked up 51 total yards (five carries, one catch) and a touchdown on Dallas' first offensive drive. He looked impressive as the starting running back, giving us just what we wanted to see.
While many have advertised him as a gadget player, Pollard proved he can actually be a "standard" RB. He ran between the tackles, showed power, balance and great vision. I'm ready to watch it again, this time versus the Texans.
Wish #4: Taco Charlton Shines Rushing The Passer
Taco Charlton has made a couple of plays in preseason on his third year with the Dallas Cowboys. Against the Rams, he batted down two passes and looked good separating from opposing offensive linemen. Charlton has gotten praise from some analysts during these first two preseason weeks.
But I want to watch some quality pass rush from his part. Right now, the Cowboys' roster counts with some promising players, including rookies Jalen Jelks and Joe Jackson. While they're currently below Taco, he must prove he belongs on the roster.
Cowboys’ Tight End Marcus Lucas with Huge Opportunity vs the Houston Texans
With only two preseason games remaining, opportunities to make a statement are growing thin. The Dallas Cowboys have very few spots on the roster available, especially at the tight end position where Jason Witten, Blake Jarwin, and Dalton Schultz appear to have the depth chart locked down. The problem is, Jarwin and Schultz have been dealing with injuries and missed the second preseason game against the Los Angeles Rams and probably won't play against the Houston Texans tonight.
Enter Marcus Lucas.
Marcus Lucas hasn't been a member of the Dallas Cowboys for very long, but he's already made an impact.
In his first preseason game with the Dallas Cowboys, Lucas caught four passes on four targets for 20 yards. His receptions went for two, seven, five, and six yards for an average of five yards per reception. He did have a holding penalty that cost the Dallas Cowboys 10 yards on a first down play that didn't go anywhere anyway.
Though Lucas has bounced around NFL practice squads, he's never really found a home. After going undrafted in 2014, Lucas was signed by the Carolina Panthers in May of that year but wasn't able to stick on the 53-man roster and was released and placed on the practice squad. In 2015, he was on the Miami Dolphins and Chicago Bears practice squads. In 2016, the Panthers brought him back in the summer after the Bears released him from their 90-man roster. That September after cut-down day, the Seattle Seahawks signed Lucas to their practice squad where he spent all of 2016. From 2017 to the end of 2018, Lucas spent time with the Indianapolis Colts, Oakland Raiders, Detroit Lions, the Seattle Seahawks again, and the San Francisco 49ers. He was with the 49ers in 2019 before joining the Dallas Cowboys about two weeks ago and will get an extended run in these final two preseason games.
At Thursday's practice, Lucas was the only tight end available with Jason Witten getting a rest day and Jarwin, Schultz, and fellow Tight End Cody McElroy dealing with injuries.
With Jason Witten getting a day of rest, Blake Jarwin, Dalton Schultz and Codey McElroy injured, the Cowboys have one tight end practicing today: Marcus Lucas, who has been with the team for about two weeks.
It's possible that Lucas may get an extended amount of playing time tonight with an opportunity to show the Dallas Cowboys and the rest of the NFL that he's ready to land on a 53-man roster. With likely only Jason Witten being the only other tight end active for the game against the Houston Texans, Lucas will get a lot of playing time. If his last preseason exposure is any indication, he'll get the chance to display his receiving prowess.
At 27, Lucas likely has few opportunities left to make his mark for an NFL franchise. On a team that proclaims the "next man up" as a battle cry, after Witten, Lucas is the next man up for tonight and depending on his performance could make the Dallas Cowboys front office or another front office around the league take notice.
Depending on the long-term health of the Dallas Cowboys' tight end position, Lucas may find his path to a roster spot simply dependent upon the health of Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz. Though a job may not come with the Dallas Cowboys, tonight is an extremely important audition for his next suitor. How he performs tonight could land Marcus Lucas a job after the Dallas Cowboys trim the roster to 53 next week.
They say "preseason games don't matter," but to Marcus Lucas, this might be the most important game of his career.
Don’t Forget Special Teams Value in Cowboys Roster Decisions
Building a 53-man roster in the NFL is a complex formula, requiring balance between numerous positions on each side of the ball. But what often gets overlooked in our analysis as outsiders is special teams, and that's a huge factor for many of the Dallas Cowboys players hoping to make it past final cuts.
Some players have survived in the league by being just good enough at their listed positions but excelling in special teams roles. You may think of former Dallas safety Bill Bates, who was personally responsible for a special teams player being made part of the annual Pro Bowl roster. A more recent example would be Keith Davis, who was an adequate safety but a special teams ace for several seasons.
To be sure, someone is going to be on this 2019 Cowboys more for their special teams value than their actual offensive or defensive ability. Who might he, or they, be?
One candidate is veteran Cornerback C.J. Goodwin. He is considered an exceptional talent in coverage on punts, which is probably the only reason he's still in the NFL today. At age 29, Goodwin has never really emerged as a consistent contributor on defense.
Young players like Donovan Olumba or rookie Michael Jackson, if not already superior cornerbacks to Goodwin, have far more upside to keep on the roster. But
considering how little they may get on the field anyway as the fifth or sixth corners, you can see why special teams value becomes so important. It may be the only time you actually see them in the game.
If the Cowboys don't want to lose a young prospect but can't let go of Goodwin's special teams ability, it may prompt them to go long at the CB position. But that means taking a roster spot from some other position, and thus the balancing act continues.
Another player to watch in this discussion is second-year an Running Back Jordan Chunn. He doesn't have Alfred Morris' experience or maybe Mike Weber or Darius Jackson's rushing talent, but he has been showing up on the special teams units.
Yesterday, Cowboys insider Bryan Broaddus called Chunn "a better Rod Smith" in analyzing his chances of making the roster. If you don't recall, Jaylon's older brother was a solid RB but a standout special teams player in his few years with Dallas.
As we just mentioned with the 5th/6th CB slots, the third running back is not a guy you expect to see much on offense. That will be especially true this year as Dallas will be struggling just to give rookie Tony Pollard the touches he deserves as the number-two RB.
Given that, special teams play becomes vital for the value of whoever is behind Zeke and Pollard on the depth chart. If Jordan Chunn is superior to his competition in that regard, it could negate whatever he lacks as an actual running back.
This same conversation can be had throughout the roster. It's why Noah Brown might make the team over more traditionally gifted receivers, or why a certain linebacker or safety might be more valued than others.
We make the common mistake of referring to "both sides of the ball" when we talk about football teams. There are three sides; special teams can't be underestimated. It will certainly play a part in how the Dallas Cowboys finalize their 53-man roster this season and in years to come.
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