Cowboys Roster Battles 2012 — Tight End

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James Hanna

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 used him as an F-back, flexing him into the backfield as a lead blocker, and he fizzled in this role.

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.

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Rafael Vela

Rafael Vela

Started covering Dallas Cowboys @ TheBoys.com in '95 and '96. Two more stops along the way and here I am. Senior Analyst for SportsTalkLine.com
  • L_Dawg0073

    Good read. Do you think they will keep 3 or 4 TE’s this season?

    • http://www.cowboysnation.com Rafael Vela

      Three.  They started with four TEs and no FBs, then got Fiammetta.  They need a thumper in the backfield.  They have Vickers.  

      I’m not pushing Phillips off the roster, but if it comes down to his 4th year salary and Bryan’s 1st, and their games are close…

      • L_Dawg0073

        Should we expect some improvement from Phillips this year being this his 2nd year from ACL surgery? I like Bryan better than Hanna.

        • AustonianAggie

          The reputation is 2nd year back is better, but he’s not very dynamic and isn’t a guy you say “I must have him on the roster.”  Still, they claim TE is very difficult to learn; John Phillips may benefit from his vetern knowledge of the play book

          • greatwhitenorth

            Pre-injury during the 2010 preseason, Phillips was really tearing it up.  Not Gronk, Gates, or Witten, but he at least looked like a receiver on the level of a Fasano, Chandler, Shianco, or Boss, and guys like that always have a place on rosters.  I didn’t focus much on Phillips last year, but most of us loved him pre-injury.  If he can get back to that, he’ll be the #2 TE this year for sure.

          • geth13

             I was one of those big Phillips fans also & he was having a really good preseason before the injury but it was preseason and I wonder if his pass catching ability was really all that great or were we comparing him to Martellis Bennett, who dropped almost everything thrown to him?

      • Xgonzo22

        yeah those drops at the combine bothered me. seems like a concentration issue

        • greatwhitenorth

          Anyone know if he had a problem with drops on the field at Oklahoma?  I’m willing to overlook one bad performance, particularly in a one-off environment like the Combine.  Seems to me that’s a different kind of pressure than football players regularly face.

          • geth13

            Hanna, has decent hands but a couple of years ago he had a Jackie Smith moment  that cost OU a win. I can’t remember what game it was but near the end of the game OU was deep in the opponent’s territory. On 4th down, they facked a field goal & threw a pass to Hanna. He was wide open for a touchdown & win but the ball went right threw his hands.

      • Bluefin

         But it might also be easy to stick one of the rookie Ys on the practice squad.

        There will no shortage of candidates to sift through following final cuts in September.

        I like John Phillips and will be hoping to see the Cavalier back in proper form with full confidence in the ACL repair.

        Phillips can play Y and F, he doesn’t have Martellus Bennett’s ability, but his focus is infinitely better. When he arrived at Valley Ranch, Phillips started studying everything Jason Witten did and looking to apply the lessons to his own game.

        I want guys like that on my 53.

        The key with James Hanna, our new #84, will likely be special teams, IMO.

        Hanna needs to be valuable in the third phase to ensure development time on the roster.

  • Krazy Cowboy

    Hanna is ah Burner!

  • Sam

    Ultimately, the Cowboys will need to find a replacement for Witten, but I don’t think it will be any time soon.  The guy is a pro’s pro and he is always prepared…my guess is that he’ll be good to go in his current role for the next three years.  Witten has never been a speed demon, so age won’t affect him as much as players at other positions.  That won’t keep the Cowboys from continuing to find his replacement over the next several drafts…keep taking shots until you hit on one.

    My prediction for this year is that Hanna is going to really need to outshine Phillips in order to knock him off the roster.  I can see the Cowboys keeping four TEs before I see Phillips getting cut in favor of Hanna.  Conversely, if Phillips has a break out year in camp the way he did a few years ago, it could be Hanna that is gone (practice squad).  I think the Cowboys would rather keep two Ys than two Hs.  My money is on Bryan to make the squad either way (either as the 4th TE or in lieu of Hanna).  I heard good talk about Bryan leading up to the draft and was hoping he would land in Dallas.  Apparently he’s a great blocker and had decent receiving production in college before his QB moved on (graduated/transferred–can’t remember)  I wasn’t expecting the Cowboys to land him as a FA…all the better.

    • http://www.cowboysnation.com Rafael Vela

      Witten is amazing, but they drafted him when he was 20.  He’s got 9 years of NFL wear and tear on that body.  

      He was on pace to break Kellen Winslow’s record last year.  He was on the same curve as Gronkowski, but Witten tapered off after 6 games, where Gronkowski kept going.  

      Scheme, luck, an injury, or an early sign that he’s starting to drop off just a touch?  

      I think Dallas will look to get Witten a sidekick very soon.  If they lose him, the offense takes a massive hit. 

      • Jarhead

        so it goes with Romo and Ware. they are the three potential HOFers on the team, and they aint getting younger.

      • Sam

        I agree, they will keep trying in the draft every year until they find his replacement.  As Jarhead points out below, they need to continue to do the same with Romo and Ware.  I just don’t think they have anyone on the current roster that will serve as Witten’s ultimate replacement.  My guess is that those guys are complementary/backup players to Witten.

  • Rio

    Rest in Peace. Junior Say Owww!!!     

    • sidarc

      I second that. Really enjoyed watching that monster play ball.

      It truly makes you hope for some serious medical advancements on the long term effects of concussions.

  • Michael

    The Cowboys won’t be able to replace Witten with a single player. The production will have to be made up amongst the FB, TEs and 3rd WR. Players like Witten don’t come along  very often.

  • Starmesh23

    All I know is that Hanna against Bruce Carter should be fun to watch in camp. Both players have 4.4 speed so hopefully they can hone in on other parts of their game to get better.

  • Pmkaram

    Is there any chance of Chapas being in the TE mix?

    • http://www.cowboysnation.com Rafael Vela

      Don’t know.  He looked good in passing drills last year, and he’s a better receiver than lead blocker, so his best chance might be as an F-back.  But his 40 times were in the 4.8-4.9 range.  Not going to win many matchups with those wheels. 

  • truecowboyfan

    Phillips is young, relatively inexpensive, and most importantly, knows the offense. I would be very surprised if he gets bumped off the roster by an undrafted free agent. Hanna has a unique skill set that can cause mismatches that we all thought Bennett could create. I’m excited with what he might be able to bring to the offense.

  • Os B

    Jake Stoneburner from Ohio State will be worth the 2013 pick.

  • sidarc

    I also think Phillips will be better this year. He was severely outplaying Bennet during the preseason of his injury.

    My issue with Hanna, although I am intrigued by his physical abilities, is his mental fortitude.

    I look at catching the ball in the same vein as throwing the ball. I believe it’s something that you either have figured out by the time you’re finished with your college career or you don’t. Almost like expecting Tim Tebow to become an accurate pocket passer with some NFL coaching. It’s not happening.

    You can teach technique in so many different departments when it comes to pass catchers, route running, blocking, reading defenses, etc., but there is very little to teach in the department of actually catching the ball. He wasn’t trusted that much to do it and wasn’t very successful at it in college. Yeah, you can throw him on the jugs machine after practice every day, but that in no way simulates 90,000 screaming fans, television cameras, and bright lights with the game on the line. I fear he may be one of those physically gifted phenoms who won’t be able to perform when the lights come on, but time will tell.

    • Jarhead

      phillips came on strong at the end of his first year, he overshadowed bennett.

      the next year, dallas played in the HOF game to open the pre-season and he came out playing like it was the SB….and tore his ACL.

      he hasn’t played the same since.

  • BrianBrianBrian

    He has a lot of mileage…but that did not stop Jerry signing him until he’s 37. Why could we not have an owner who is not only enthusiastic, but say, smart?

    • greatwhitenorth

      On many players I’d agree with you, but I’m glad that Witten will be a Cowboy until he decides to hang it up.  I think you can both win and treat veteran players the right way.

  • Turbo73
  • Krazy Cowboy

    Dez Bryant,Miles Austin & Saalim Hakeem yes sir!

  • Natedawg

    I just can’t wait to see what John Garrett can do with a player like James Hanna. You know he has to be salivating to coach a player like him. From interviews and where he was drafted he appears to be much more likely to soak up everything Witten has to teach as well. I only wish there was a hard knocks to watch and contrast him with Martellus Bennett.

  • nickdrumsalot

    Terrel Suggs suffered a tear in his achilles tendon while working out. What is with two of the best players in the NFL suffering this injury this offseason?