There’s no doubt who will be the starter at tight end for the Dallas Cowboys, but who will get the remaining spots on the team’s roster?
One position that’s been a strength for the Dallas Cowboys for years has been the tight end spot. It’s surely not an easy position to play as the man lining up there has to be able to serve as an extra receiver when called upon, but they also have to be able to block like a sixth-offensive lineman.
Some players excel in one area of the job, while struggling mightily in the other. For Dallas, this hasn’t been the case in about a decade and a half since they have one of the best in the game at tight end.
They drafted Jason Witten back in 2003 and he’s solidified the position for them since that time. While he’s on the back-nine of his career for sure, Witten is still an effective weapon and reliable target for Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott. Witten is also no slouch as a blocker, and his toughness is contagious.
One of their strongest leaders, Witten’s status as starter surely won’t be in question. The real battle takes place for the second tight end spot — usually a starter in this offense — and any remaining positions. Let’s take a look at who will be vying for a job behind the All-Pro Witten.
A knee injury sent tight end James Hanna to the IR for the 2016 season, which was disappointing to say the least. The former sixth-round pick out of Oklahoma in 2012 has developed into a steady blocking tight end for the Cowboys, and his loss last season was a let down.
Despite showing promise in the passing game, Hanna has yet to break out as a receiver. He has great speed for the spot as he posted a 4.49-second 40-yard dash during the NFL Combine. Despite that he hasn’t been able to transition into a threat as his top season included just 12 receptions and he has yet to score a touchdown.
Dallas spent a second-round pick on tight end Gavin Escobar, but he never was able to supplant the player picked just one season before.
Heading into 2017, the team hopes Hanna is healthy and can contribute. With Escobar gone, the team will likely have the five-year pro in their starting lineup opposite Witten.
Maybe with Dak Prescott at quarterback now a better rapport can be built between Hanna and the signal caller. If so, it would be an extra boost to get an athletic tight end involved.
Battling for the third spot: Geoff Swaim and Rico Gathers
Trying to beat Hanna out for the second spot will be the blocking specialist out of Texas, Geoff Swaim and the former Baylor basketball player Rico Gathers. Swaim was a seventh-round pick that the Boys traded back into the draft for. They loved his ability to set the edge in the run game, but he has also shown to have soft, reliable hands.
A pectoral tear sent him to IR along with Hanna, which ended his shot at breaking out. Before the injury he and quarterback Dak Prescott had shown a good ability to work together. They were in sync and could build on that moving forward.
Jun 14, 2016; Irving, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys tight end Rico Gathers (80) makes a catch during minicamp at Dallas Cowboys Headquarters. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
As for Gathers, Dallas used a sixth-round pick in the project player. The excitement around him is due to his freakish size (6-8, 280-pounds) and incredible leaping ability. Other tight ends have transitioned from the hardwood to become NFL stars, and Gathers has the tools to be the next.
Perhaps most encouraging is that he is perfectly fine in the blocking game. Many other guys in his position can’t hold up in this area, but Gathers is further ahead here than in his route running. If he can show some real progress in the preseason, he has a strong shot to make the active roster thanks to his immense potential.
Aug 18, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns tight end Connor Hamlett (89) takes the field for the game against the Atlanta Falcons at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports
These guys have a chance if they keep a fourth: Connor Hamlett and Blake Jarwin
In the past the Cowboys have kept four tight ends and the final two guys here only have a shot if they do so yet again. Even so, it’s an outside shot as Hanna, Swaim and Gathers are all currently ahead of Connor Hamlett and undrafted rookie Blake Jarwin.
Hamlett has bounced around a lot for a guy with two years of experience. He started out with the Jacksonville Jaguars as an undrafted free agent in 2015. He spent time with the Philadelphia Eagles, New Orleans Saints and Cleveland Browns that season as well. Last season he was still in Cleveland and caught just one pass — although that went for a 17 yard touchdown. To date he has turned some heads, but that means little until the pads come on.
Jarwin was seldom used in the pass game for the Oklahoma Sooners and had just 41 receptions for 616 yards and five touchdowns in three seasons. He did enough to catch the Cowboys eyes, but his chance of making the team is limited at best. Eventually he could develop into a decent player, but Dallas is rather strong at the spot currently.