Whether the Cowboys have a need for a tight end in the draft depends to a large extent on whether James Hanna is expected to make a recover from his injury, whether Rico Gathers is ready to be a contributor for the 2017 season, and how long Jason Witten is expected to play. The Cowboys’ management has much more knowledge about those players than the media and fans, so we are left making educated guesses on what the team may do.
If the team can count on one of Hanna or Gathers to contribute in 2017, there isn’t a need based on the number of players since the team typically carries three tight ends on the 53 man roster. With Witten nearing the end of his career, however, several commentators expect the team to add a young tight end to start after Witten leaves. Having a year to watch and learn from one of the team’s best role models isn’t a bad idea.
Many people seem to doubt that Geoff Swaim can be an adequate starting tight end, but he has displayed solid ability as both a blocker and receiver. He isn’t a fluid pass catcher who will make spectacular plays like Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski, but he has good enough speed and route running ability. Gathers is very much an unknown, and Hanna has likely reached his ceiling, which is a good blocking tight end that is very limited as a receiving threat.
The Cowboys look for tight ends that can block, which is why (besides the presence of Witten) Gavin Escober hasn’t received much playing time. When looking at draft prospects, two tight ends could fit the profile and be available for the Cowboys after the top two rounds – Jake Butt (Michigan) and George Kittle (Iowa).
Draft evaluators indicated that Jake Butt was a first to second round prospect prior to him tearing his ACL late last season. Due to his injury, Butt will likely fall to the third round and possibly the fourth round. If the Cowboys draft Butt, the third round is the likely spot.
In watching video of Butt playing against Ohio State and Indiana, Butt seems to play similar to Witten. He is the same height and about ten pounds lighter. Like Witten, he is not fast, but runs good routes, can adjust/improvise to find open spaces, sells defenders on double moves, catches the ball well and is a reliable but not overpowering blocker. I didn’t see the same level of fluidity and naturalness in running downfield and catching the ball and making it look effortless like Witten did in his younger days, but few do. A closer comparison is Nick Vannett, who played at Ohio State and was drafted by the Seahawks in the third round last year. After the video review, I think Butt would not be a first round pick even if healthy and is more like a mid to late second round pick. I’d be very happy to use the team’s fourth round pick on Butt, but using the third round pick seems like fair value but not anything more. The time missed due to recovery isn’t that concerning since he would not take a roster spot on the initial 53 man roster and could use that time to study what Witten does, which made him a player that maxed out his natural ability.
Kittle is being projected in the seventh round or as an undrafted free agent. In watching Kittle against Purdue, North Dakota State, and Northwestern, I must be missing something that the scouts are seeing, because Kittle looks much better than that. His blocking appeared to be better than Butt’s blocking. He shows more drive at the snap and more tenacity to drive after establishing position. Check out Iowa’s second play from scrimmage against North Dakota State to see him drive a guy ten yards before pancaking him. To ensure it wasn’t due to level of competition, games against a common opponent (Northwestern) were viewed for each. His blocking was very good in all games watched.
Kittle surprised Mike Mayock by running a 4.52 forty yard dash because Mayock said that Kittle was known as a blocking tight end. However, Kittle does show some receiving talent. He moves faster than Butt and was a consistent catcher in the games viewed. Near the end of the Northwestern game, he made a nice back shoulder catch while dealing with tight coverage. He had a long touchdown catch and run against Purdue and a 51 yard gain on a wheel route against North Dakota State. His speed was evident on both plays. What I didn’t see, and this may be just because of the routes he was assigned to run, is adjusting routes to find an open space or using double moves. It is possible that Kittle is similar to James Hanna – a good blocker with good straight line speed but lacking quick change of direction to create separation from defenders. Kittle didn’t participate in the shuttles or the 3 cone drill at the combine, which would have given some information on his change of direction ability.
Evan Engram wasn’t included above only because I don’t see him as a traditional tight end that would be used in a way that the Cowboys currently use tight ends. If the team is willing to use Engram in various roles, he could be a very good prospect. He could play out wide as a wide receiver with his 4.42 speed and ball skills. He could play in the slot and be a better blocker than wide receivers, but his blocking as an in-line tight end is sub-par due to his weight being only 236 pounds. Where I think he could give defenses problems is having the ability to line up wide or run routes out of the backfield, which forces the defense to use a secondary player in coverage, and also move closer to the line as a fullback or in the slot and use his size as an advantage blocking. Engram will likely be drafted in the second round, and probably before the Cowboys selection.
Who would you prefer? Engram in the second, Butt in the third, or Kittle in the seventh?