As shockingly as he left just before the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft, Jason Witten returned to the gridiron with an equal amount of surprise as the Dallas Cowboys announced the return of their future hall of fame tight end.
It was a surprise to many, though the rumors persisted throughout the 2018 season, even into the playoffs. Jason Witten coming back provides a necessary veteran presence within the Cowboys tight end group that began to make a name for themselves at the end of last season.
Witten’s return is excellent for the Dallas Cowboys as they attempt to be the first NFC East team to defend their division title since the Philadelphia Eagles run in the early 2000’s.
Getting a player that is as respected as Jason Witten is, with the track record he has, is a huge coup for the Cowboys front office.
As we say each offseason leading up to the draft, the Cowboys will use free agency to fill needs to give them flexibility to focus on players and not on needs. Witten being added to the tight end group with Dalton Schultz and Blake Jarwin will make for a really solid trio of tight ends that will all get a shot to contribute in 2019.
is Jason Witten still a 100 catch TE in the NFL? Not at all. He’s a serviceable player that can still help you win games.
Here’s how the return of Jason Witten will affect the Dallas Cowboys.
The Dallas Cowboys seem ready to pay Dak Prescott a hefty sum of money to be their franchise quarterback. It’s time to start providing Dak with as many weapons as you can get your hands on and despite a year off, Jason Witten will be a weapon in 2019.
He may not be as effective of a player as he was in his prime, but he’s still going to offer the things that have always made Jason Witten great; savvy route running, reliable hands, and toughness in the middle of the field.
In Dak Prescott’s rookie season, Witten caught 69 passes on 91 targets for 673 yards and three touchdowns. When targeting Witten, Prescott had a passer rating of 102.5. Witten turned 33 of his receptions into first downs or 47% of the time.
In 2017, Witten caught 63 passes on 81 targets for 560 yards and five touchdowns. Prescott has a passer rating of 116 when throwing to Witten. Witten caught concerted 26 of his passes into first downs.
It took a while for Dak to become comfortable throwing to Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz, but once he found a groove with them, began throwing their way more often. Down the stretch Jarwin and Schultz provided solid play, but in the playoffs, they were largely absent from the passing game.
Witten provides Dak another friendly face in the offense that he can count on in crunch time. It’s especially important if Wide Receiver Cole Beasley walks in free agency. Having someone who can win the middle of the field as consistently as Witten can, is a huge asset.
Though it was first being reported as a one year $5 million contract for Witten’s to come out of the Monday Night Football booth, it was later reported to be a deal for $3.5 million in 2019.
Whatever the number might be is of little consequence when it comes to the salary cap.
If the projected salary cap of $190 million holds true for 2019, at $3.5 million, Witten will only take up 1.8% of the Dallas Cowboys salary cap in 2019.
That number ranks 23rd in the NFL among TEs. If you take Jason Witten’s Numbers overs 2016 and 2017 and average them together, he finishes as a top six tight end option against the 2018 production.
There are a lot of people who feel that this is a big number for a guy who is about to turn 37. Compare that to Sean Lee who will count $10 million on the 2019 cap and will take up 5.2% of the $190 million in cap space. That’s a huge difference between a guy who can’t stay healthy in Lee and a guy who hasn’t missed a game since his rookie season.
Jason Witten is coming to the Cowboys on a relatively cheap contract. There’s little risk to bringing him back and seeing what happens.
Dallas Cowboys Head Coach Jason Garrett gets one of “his guys” back in Witten. Those two have been together forever. Witten is a player and a leader that Garrett can rely on to get his message across and reinforced on one of the youngest teams in the NFL. IF you scroll social media for even a bit, you can see how much the players love Jason Witten and are excited about his return.
2019 could very well be Jason Garrett’s final season in Dallas as he was not offered a contract extension this offseason. Garrett needs to find playoff success this year for the Cowboys to re-up him for the future. Bringing back a veteran presence like Witten, and going big in free agency, is huge for Garrett. The Cowboys have built through the draft for years without taking any bites out of the free agent pool. With a deep safety market that includes Earl Thomas and Landon Collins, the Cowboys are looking to upgrade at that position to continue pushing toward a sixth Lombardi.
Monday Night Football Viewers
I hate to take a shot at Jason Witten, because he’s one of my favorite Cowboys, but he wasn’t good on Monday Night Football, and that may be generous.
Typically he seemed awkward and several times he said the wrong thing. Like when he said, “pull a rabbit out of his head.”
It was fun seeing Witten calling games, but slightly painful to hear him doing analysis for ESPN. There’s zero doubt that he knows the game and knows it well, it’s just his delivery never seemed comfortable.
The Monday Night Football experience looks like it could get better if the ESPN casting people pursue either a Peyton Manning or Kurt Warner or Nate Burleson.
Because he flopped in the booth, he likely saw that his future in the league was going to be as a coach. That’s no knock on Witten. It takes a different type of talent to analyze the game and then share that analysis in a smooth and entertaining way. Witted just didn’t seem to have it.
Now. He gets to return to the field and restore his good name as Jason Witten the football player.
Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz
No matter how you slice it, the move to sign Jason Witten our of the booth will negatively affect the snap counts of Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz. Even if Witten only plays 25 snaps a game that will cut into Jarwin and Schultz’s snap count.
According to Warren Sharp’s SharpFootballStats.com, the Dallas Cowboys lined up in 11 personnel 70% of the time. Their 500 plays in that personnel grouping were third in the NFL behind the Los Angeles Rams and Indianapolis Colts.
When the Cowboys threw the ball, they did so out of 11 personnel 82% of the time. When they ran, they used 11 personnel only 53% of the time.
This is where things are going to get tricky. Of the other 30% when they weren’t in 11 personnel, the Cowboys used multiple tight ends 21% of the time or for 182 snaps.
The Cowboys used a single tight end 77% of the time.
So, if Witten is only coming back to play about 25 snaps a game, that’s 400 snaps over the course of the season. Meaning he’ll be taking some single tight end alignment snaps from Jarwin or Schultz.
I think the Dallas Cowboys really like Jarwin and Schultz. It’s possible that Witten is more of an insurance policy if the coaches don’t like what they see from Jarwin or Schultz. The coaching staff will get them on the field as much as possible to see if either can stand out as a starting option in 2020.
Every snap they get this offseason, during training camp, the preseason, and the regular season will be incredibly valuable in proving they are the long-term answer at tight end.
The snaps they’ll get however, just shrunk.
Team “sign Tyler Eifert” took a hit yesterday with the news of Witten’s return to the Dallas Cowboys.
Eifert is a name that has been thrown around a lot since he posted an Instagram video of him working agility drills. As the brother-in-law to Zack Martin and with the Cowboys having a need at TE, Eifert looked to be a perfect opportunity to find a low cost-low risk option in free agency, freeing up the Cowboys to go another direction in the draft if they do choose.
Witten, seemingly has taken that mantle from Eifert as the Cowboys veteran insurance policy to the two youngsters.
It’s not impossible that the Cowboys still pursue Eifert, but if they didn’t that would be a damning statement to how they feel about Jarwin, Schultz, or both.
2019 Tight End Draft Class
The 2019 draft class is loaded this year. There are potential starters as deep as the fourth round by most people’s estimations. It’s been rumored that the Cowboys were going the address the tight end position. Most Cowboys fans figured that meant through free agency or the draft.
Little did we know they were going to go shopping in the booth.
Tight ends who are likely to be slotted in the second or third round likely saw a place where they could be drafted fall off the table.
Now, if the Cowboys want to draft a TE, they can wait until the later rounds of the draft to do so. They aren’t locked in at 58 or 89 into taking a tight end. And that’s exactly where they like to be.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
Obviously it remains to be seen just how well this move will turn out for the Cowboys, but I’m optimistic. If they’re serious about limiting his snaps to get Jarwin and Schultz on the field, it will Ben a good move as they try to develop a couple of players who showed flashes of pro level production on 2018.
There hasn’t been a player who fully embraced and embodied the identity of the Dallas’s Cowboys in the 2000’s. He’s been an iconic player for the team and personifies everything that Jason Garrett wants his team to be about.
Who knows what the production will be on the field. It may not be that great. The intangibles that Jason Witten brings to an NFL locker room are hard to put a price tag on.
One thing is for certain, having number 82 back out on the field is a big win for the Cowboys and Cowboys Nation.
Dallas Cowboys 2019 Draft Needs: Impact of Free Agency Moves & Rumors
With most of the marquee NFL free agents already off the market, many are already turning their eyes to the 2019 Draft. Whether a glaring need went unaddressed or the needs have simply changed, the draft offers the next big opportunity for teams like the Dallas Cowboys to stock talent for next season.
While they've been conservative so far this offseason, Dallas has been active in the last few days in covering bases and giving itself more flexibility for the draft. They don't want to have to reach on a talent because of a need, nor do they want to tip their hand too much to the rest of the league.
As of now there are still some significant acquisitions that could happen. Dallas has visited with veteran Safety Eric Berry and Defensive Lineman Malik McDowell, plus are reportedly in trade talks with Miami for Defend End Robert Quinn. Any of these moves could have a big impact on their need levels for the draft.
We've already seen some changes thanks to offseason activity. With Tuesday's signing of Randall Cobb, plus moves to retain Tavon Austin and Allen Hurns, Dallas may not be looking at a receiver as early as we might've thought. The same can be said for Jason Witten's return and the tight end position.
If the draft were today, without accounting for any of the players that the Cowboys have had talks with but remain unsigned, here's how I would rank the team's 2019 draft needs:
- Defensive End
- Defensive Tackle
- Tight End
- Running Back
- Wide Receiver
- Offensive Tackle
- Quarterback (Mike White is their drafted backup project for at least another year.)
- Punter (Could add someone to compete with Chris Jones and save some cap dollars.)
- Fullback (They re-signed Jamize Olawale, who they barely use anyway. Zero need here.)
I put safety on top because it's the spot that could most use an immediate upgrade and has some pressing future need. Dallas didn't make the big move for Earl Thomas that many hoped for and Jeff Heath's contract expires after this season. Hopefully, a second-round talent could compete for a starting job now and at least replace Heath in 2020.
Even with the Kerry Hyder signing defensive end has some major red flags. DeMarcus Lawrence has sworn he would holdout without a long-term deal. Randy Gregory is suspended again, and now Tyrone Crawford is now facing potential league action from an incident with police last week. Unless the Cowboys think Taco Charlton is going to make a big push in his third year, they could be hurting for a pass rush in 2019.
I expect things with Lawrence will get resolved, and I doubt Crawford will get suspended for more than a game or two if at all. But Dallas could still use another solid DE if they don't get this deal for Robert Quinn done.
Remember, the 2019 Cowboys aren't working with a first-round pick. Barring a trade, they'll be waiting until the 58th pick to make their first selection. That limits the impact potential of their picks and makes what they do with the Day 2 picks all the more critical.
So what if the Cowboys pull off these three potential moves, adding Berry, McDowell, and Quinn? Each player would help to address the top three needs on my list.
Eric Berry hopefully solves the immediate upgrade need at safety, though it may not do much for the future. He turns 31 this year and was released by Kansas City because of multiple injury issues. Dallas could still consider taking a rookie prospect, perhaps even releasing Jeff Heath for cap savings if needed.
Malik McDowell was considered a first-round talent in 2017 but has never played after a major ATV accident prior to his first training camp with Seattle. If he's finally recovered enough to return to football and play at his original potential, he could give Dallas a talent infusion that none of their draft capital could provide.
Robert Quinn has been around a while but will be just 29 in May, and is still putting up sacks at a solid rate. He's averaged 7.5 sacks the last two years with two different teams. He would go a long way to stabilizing things at defensive end and allowing Dallas look at guys like Gregory and Hyder as icing on the cake.
If Dallas lands all three players then I would adjust the list as follows:
- Tight End
- Defensive Tackle
- Running Back
- Defensive End
- Wide Receiver
If you think about it, the safety and tight end positions would be kind of similar in this scenario. You'd have Eric Berry and Jason Witten as the veteran stopgaps, Xavier Woods and Blake Jarwin as intriguing young guys with starting potential, and Kavon Frazier and Dalton Schultz as other young depth.
However, at every step, safety would be deeper and have more upside. Berry should have more to often than Witten, Woods is more proven than Jarwin, and Frazier is more experienced than Schultz.
Plus, we didn't even mention that you'd have Jeff Heath for experience and versatility at safety. Meanwhile, TE Rico Gathers probably won't be on next year's team.
So yes, I'd vault tight end to the top of the need list. Dallas may like Blake Jarwin but they could find a far more polished and talented player with the 58th pick.
Even with McDowell and Christian Covington added to the mix, Dallas would still be wise to address the defensive tackle position. They have several contract issues coming up at once in 2020.
Covington and Maliek Collins will be unrestricted free agents next year. The Cowboys will also likely want to finally shed Tyrone Crawford's contract, with $8 million in cap relief possible. That would leave them pretty bare at defensive tackle.
Dallas could make a move now to solidify their rotation and prepare for the future. They'd have a little more stability at defensive end with assumed multi-year deals for Lawrence and Quinn, making tackle the more immediate concern.
The backup running back spot can't be ignored, with only Darius Jackson and Jordan Chunn currently signed behind Ezekiel Elliott. If Dallas doesn't bring back Rod Smith between now and the draft, they may want to spend a high pick for Zeke's relief man and an additional offensive weapon.
Elliott's own contract will be up for discussion as soon. Having a talented player with a four-year rookie deal behind him could give the Cowboys much-needed leverage in any future talks with their franchise back.
~ ~ ~
We'll see if Dallas lands any of the players we've hypothesized about. Any of them would help lessen the need at their positions, but those would still remain important areas for the Cowboys to look at in the upcoming draft.
Ezekiel Elliott vs Byron Jones Part II: The Case For Paying Zeke
It's a debate that has raged on social media for some time now and it likely won't slow down as the offseason progresses and the Dallas Cowboys begin to hand out massive contracts to their top players. Pay Ezekiel Elliott? Pay Byron Jones? If you could only pay one, which would you pay?
This week fellow Inside The Star Staff Writer, Kevin Brady took to Twitter to poll the populous and his results were a bit surprising to me.
if you can only pay one it should be
The results inspired me to see what would happen if I put the same poll on my timeline.
Inspired by my teammate @KevinBrady88, if you can only pay one, which would it be?
On Monday, Kevin wrote a piece looking at one of the difficult decisions facing the Dallas Cowboys this offseason or next. If the Cowboys could only extend Byron Jones OR Ezekiel Elliott, who should they choose? Kevin, as am I, is a firm believer in Byron Jones ability and says the Cowboys should extend them, and I agree. But let's look at the other side of the argument.
To begin, the Cowboys should and probably will get both guys contract extensions either this offseason or next. It's not impossible with the cap continuing to increase at a rate of about $8-12 million per year that the Cowboys will have the space to get the deals done that they need to get done. Ezekiel Elliott and Byron Jones included.
Byron Jones settled in nicely at cornerback during his first full season at cornerback and knowing what we know about Jones, he won't be satisfied with a second team All-Pro appearance. Expect him to get better. However, if there's a single player that represents the current identity of the Dallas Cowboys, it's Running Back Ezekiel Elliott.
The Cowboys made him the fourth overall pick in 2016 and haven't looked back in their plan to establish the running game. For his career Elliott has averaged 26.9 touches per game over the course of his 40 games.
Here's a look at what Elliott's per game and per 16 game paces look like through the first three seasons of his career.
As you can see from the table above, Ezekiel Elliott is averaging 131.2 total yards per game for his career. In his rookie season he had 1,994 total yards and he sat out the week 17 game against the Philadelphia Eagles when the Cowboys had the NFC and home field advantage locked up. In 2017, Elliott sat out six games and still had nearly 1,000 yards rushing. In 2018, Elliott broke through the 2,000 total yard barrier after seeing a huge increase in his targets and receptions.
Ezekiel Elliott has been everything the Dallas Cowboys could have hoped for and more. With the leadership role he's taken with the team, he's a player that leads both vocally and by example. There are few players on the Dallas Cowboys that give as much effort as he does each snap. How many times has it looked like Elliott was about to get dropped for a two or three yard loss only to grind through tackles to pick up a four yard gain? How many times has he bounced off tacklers to get to the first down marker? Ezekiel Elliott is the human personification of dirty yards, but don't let that fool you into thinking that Elliott can't take it to the house every time he touches the ball. Elliott's is a game breaker who threatens the defense every time he steps on the field.
In 2018, Elliott led the NFL in yards after contact, per Pro Football Focus. His 949 yards after contact in 2018 would have ranked 13th in the NFL in rushing, which was better than David Johnson's 940 yards rushing last season.
Not many running backs effect a football game like Ezekiel Elliott does.
Few players outside of the quarterback position are as much of a focal point for their offense while being an attention grabber for opposing defenses like Ezekiel Elliott is. In 2018, he saw eight or more men in the box on nearly 25% of his carries in 2018. Some of that is related to the Dallas Cowboys insistence on using two tight ends on 50% of their running plays (per Sharp Football), but the other aspect is related to how much they respect the Dallas Cowboys running game. Since the 2014, the Cowboys have been synonymous with running the football. DeMarco Murray, Darren McFadden, and now Ezekiel Elliott have been the faces of that running game behind the Cowboys elite offensive line.
Even in a down year for offensive line play from the Dallas Cowboys, Elliott still managed to lead the NFL in rushing for the second time in three seasons. Elliott made the Pro Bowl for the second time in three years as well. Were it not for the railroad job done by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in 2017, there's a really good chance that Elliott leads the league in rushing three years in a row and that the Dallas Cowboys make the playoffs all three seasons.
Sure, the running back position is undervalued in the NFL and rushing yardage can be replaced, but there are intangibles to Elliott's game that are very difficult to replace. His ability to grind out the dirty yards, break big plays, create yards after contact, pass protect, be a threat as a receiver, and his leadership make him a player that is difficult to replace.
Yes, Byron Jones was really good in 2018 and deserves to get paid by the Dallas Cowboys as well, but you'd be hard pressed to find a player on the Cowboys roster who has been as consistent and dominating week in and week out as Ezekiel Elliott has been over the last three years.
BREAKING: Cowboys Sign Ex-Packers WR Randall Cobb
According to multiple sources, the Dallas Cowboys have signed former Green Bay Packers Wide Receiver Randall Cobb to a one-year deal to help bolster their depth at the WR position and potentially become Cole Beasley's replacement.
Cowboys are giving former Packers' WR Randall Cobb a one-year, $5 million deal, per source. https://t.co/8KWFPjSP8T
The Dallas Cowboys met with Randall Cobb earlier this week, but he eventually left Dallas without a contract. He must've had a change of heart or just needed time to ponder the Cowboys offer, but regardless of what transpired in that short time he is now part of America's Team.
During his time with the Packers, Cobb accumulated 470 receptions for 5,524 receiving yards and 41 touchdowns. The eight-year veteran will now be expected to replace some of Cole Beasley's production out of the slot for the Dallas Cowboys.
After years of watching Beasley as the Cowboys slot WR, it will be really interesting to see Randall Cobb in that role. He's not as quick twitched as No. 11, but can be just as dangerous due to his ability to be more of a down the field receiver. He also brings added value in the return game and could compete with Tavon Austin to become the return specialist.
This could mean the Cowboys forgo drafting a wide receiver early in the 2019 NFL Draft, but I wouldn't put it past them. Regardless of what happens, this is an excellent addition.
Welcome to Cowboys Nation Randall Cobb!
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