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Winners and Losers of Jason Witten’s Return to the Dallas Cowboys

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.

Winners

Dak Prescott

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.

Salary Cap

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.

Jason Garrett

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.

Jason Witten

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.

Losers

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.

Tyler Eifert

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.

What do you think?

John Williams

Written by John Williams

Dallas Cowboys optimist bringing factual, reasonable takes to Cowboys Nation and the NFL Community. I wasn't always a Cowboys fan, but I got here as quick as I could.

Make sure you check out the Inside The Cowboys Podcast featuring John Williams and other analysts following America's Team.

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