In this series we break down the potential Dallas Cowboys depth chart, rotations and snap counts for the 2017 season.
It’s the modern NFL. Free agency is here to stay and organizations have to deal with moving parts each season. There is more to building a team each year than just finding the best 11 starters for each side of the ball. In this era of specialization and pass-happy offenses a “starter” is a fluid term to say the least. Teams employing three and four receiver sets have to be countered with defenses that echo that alignment. Ultimately it comes down to not only your starters, but your positional depth and/or the snap counts players get. It’s not getting the best 53 players to put a pen on a contract. It’s getting the right 53.
Ed Note: Click here for the latest Dallas Cowboys Depth Chart. It’s interactive and exportable.
As of today rookies are rookies and have yet to earn stars on their helmets. However these players were obtained for a reason and our lineups reflects that. Today we’re going to look at the potential 2017 Cowboys tight end rotations.
Tight End Starters
Jason Witten is a future Hall of Fame inductee and contrary to a burgeoning group of fans belief is still one of the best tight ends in the game. This group confuses being a prolific pass-catching tight end with being one of the best in the business. Tight end is a position that has many nuances and requirements. Witten can still do it all and is one of the unquestioned leaders of the team setting a work-ethic standard that brings huge smiles to coaches faces. Is he the Witten of old? No. Is he in the NFL top five? Yes. There is so much more to the game than “just” catching passes.
Behind Witten are two guys fighting for the TE2 position with both happening to be currently injured and sitting out OTA’s, however, both are (also) expected to return for training camp.
First up is the also well-rounded Geoff Swaim who even though he is making much less than bruising run-blocker James Hanna is firmly cemented as the teams number two. Swaim can play in the backfield, is proficient at sealing the edge and has shown some nifty hands and the ability to get open. The Cowboys deployed Swaim at all three positions (TE-H,Y,F) in 2016 and he is the man to beat in 2017.
Rico Gathers has the raw ability to take the TE2 job in 2017.
Tight End Run Blocking Alignment
With Witten it’s all about superior will. He gets the job done. Hanna is an absolute beast when it comes to run blocking. Hands down he is a stud in this regard. At times he has shown flashes of exceptional pass catching ability yet these have been far and few between. Swaim is proficient but continues to improve. He certainly has the desire.
Rico Gathers has the raw ability to surpass all three in blocking.
Tight End Passing Alignment
- TE – Jason Witten
- TE2 – Geoff Swaim
- TE3 – James Hanna
Witten. Do I have to explain? Good. Swaim has learned from the best and as explained earlier Hanna has shown flashes. If he can stay healthy perhaps this is the year he puts it all together?
Rico Gathers has the raw ability to surpass both Swaim and Hanna in 2017. In OTA’s he is turning heads showing how he can now get up the seam, has soft hands and newfound understanding of route running.
Tight End Rotation
- TE – Jason Witten
- TE2 – Geoff Swaim
- TE3 – James Hanna
- TE? – Rico Gathers
The rotation heading into camp is pretty much set. After day one other than Witten, all bets are off. Swaim is the more versatile and is younger and cheaper. Hanna is a MUCH more dominant run-blocker. Gathers has the raw ability to be a mismatch in every phase of the game.
My gut feeling is one of either Swaim or Hanna gets injured leaving the door open for Gathers to slide onto the active roster as a TE3. Maybe not by game one but at some point in the season he will become the TE2 and the Cowboys won’t look back.
Tight End On The Bubble
- TE – James Hanna
Hanna is in control of his own destiny. If he recovers 100% (he’s reportedly close now) and can stay that way he most likely makes the team. His run-blocking is that good. If he can turn the page in the passing game he has the ability to give the Cowboys an added dimension (remember the Steelers game from 2012) that can give opposing defenses nightmares. If he can’t regain health his large cap number ($3 million) puts him on the street.
Tight End Dark Horses
- TE – Blake Jarwin
- TE – M.J. McFarland
- TE3 – Connor Hamlett
Jarwin is a versatile guy. Oklahoma played him everywhere. At 6’5″ 248 lbs he has the size and has the look of a Mini-Geoff Swaim. His blocking is not his strong suit yet he shows potential. Scout team?
M.J. McFarland is all about potential. Another 6’5″ guy who weighs in at 252 lbs he also has the requisite makeup to give him the mini-Geoff Swaim designation. Starting to become very clear what the club is looking for from their TE2 position. Scout team?
Connor Hamlett is more in the mold of Witten and Gathers, a matchup nightmare. 6’7″, 266 lbs the former Oregon State product played with the Browns last season and tabbed 1 reception for 17 yards and a touchdown in three games, starting two of them. Most people will look at Hamlett as a camp body. That would be a mistake. I don’t believe the practice squad will be an option for Hamlett as another team is likely to claim him. Better not sleep on this kid, he could surprise.
Unlike many predicted the Cowboys didn’t address the tight end position in this years draft and with the current depth they have at the position it’s easy to see why. I fully understand all the excitement with the current rage in the NFL with pass catching tight ends. Dallas however has blocking as the KEY criteria for any TE on the roster. They are a power running team and they demand a well rounded skill set from the position.
TE will again be a strength for the Cowboys this season. However this is the year for Rico Gathers to show some flash on the field. If he can do more than flash, the Cowboys offense … well, some things just aren’t fair. Cowboys Nation has to be loving the possibilities.
We will move back to the defensive side of the ball next. Til then.
What say you Sports Nation?
Another Left Coast Sports Post: on Twitter – Steven Van Over