The 2012 tight end class was rated as one of the weakest position groups. This presents a problem for the Cowboys, who need help at both the tight end and the F-back spot. Dallas lacks depth after Jason Witten. John Phillips has returned from his ’10 ACL tear, but ran third team behind Martellus Bennett last year.
The Cowboys have a saying in their scouting department: “we do not draft players to be career backups.” And Phillips is now dangerously close to this role. The injury set him back and it’s hard to pry playing time from Witten. His fullback snaps dropped when Tony Fiammetta joined the club and he couldn’t displace Bennett, despite Martellus’ lack of deep speed and inconsistent hands.
Dallas is bringing three newbies to Oxnard this summer, 6th round pick James Hanna, and free agent signings George Bryan (N.C. State) and Andrew Szczerba (Penn State). All have decent chances to make the squad.
The Cowboys have historically divided the tight end and F-back duties. The tight end is the ”on-the-line Y” in the Witten mold. Ideally he’s a tough blocker on the edge and can get down the field and threaten the deep middle.
Bryan and Szczerba are both in-line Ys and will fight to back up Witten. Neither, however, has exceptional speed. Bryan has been timed in the 4.8 to 5.0 range and Szczerba’s best times are 5.00. Both look like situational guys who can offer short-yardage and red zone push. I’d give Bryan the edge here. He got decent ratings and has decent hands, and short-area quickness, as this report attests.
At the F-back spot, which may be more of an edge blocker in the Aaron Hernandez role, now that Lawrence Vickers has been signed, Hanna will have a chance to beat out Phillips. He has all the physical tools to excel in the F-back role. He’s big. He ran in the low 4.4s at Indy. That speed can get him separation from safeties up the seam and let him run away from linebackers on crossing routes. His hands will tell. Hanna never produced big receiving stats at Oklahoma and he looked nervous and shaky in the Combine receiving drills, where he dropped several passes.
Consistency could earn him a spot, and make him a late-round bargain. Time will tell.
Short-term odds: With good camps, I think Hanna and Bryan can make the final roster.
Long-term odds: None of these kids, or Phillips, are in Witten’s class. I think tight end will be a higher priority in the 2013 draft, even if Hanna breaks out. Witten turns 30 on Sunday. He’s got a lot of mileage on his treads.