Grading the ‘Boys, Part X: Tight Ends
After completing the 2009 grades for all of the Cowboys’ defensive players, we now focus our attention on the tight ends. Tight end is one of the strongest positions on the Cowboys’ roster–so much so that, along with perhaps running back and quarterback, it was a position which the team was very unlikely to address in the draft.
Tight end is a rather difficult position to grade due to the varying nature of the positional responsibilities. The league-wide transition to a spread offense has, on many teams, morphed the tight end position from one of versatility (a combination of strength and finesse) into pure finesse. Great blocking tight ends are often passed over in favor of athletic pass-catchers.
On the Cowboys, however, versatility is still king among the tight ends. If you can’t block, you can’t play tight end for the Dallas Cowboys. We are glad the Cowboys seek versatility in their tight ends, as we believe it is the characteristic which makes them so valuable. A defense can implement their nickel personnel to effectively limit the production of a tight end who cannot block well. The reason tight ends like Jason Witten are so efficient is that their blocking ability forces defenses to stay in their base personnel, providing the offense with mismatches.
Due to the method by which the team employs its tight ends, we will weight the players’ blocking and pass-catching grades equally. This grading system may not be suitable for a team which uses its tight ends in a different manner, such as the Washington Redskins (yes, that was a knock on Chris Cooley’s blocking ability), but for the Cowboys it is the most accurate way to determine the overall ability of Jason Witten, Martellus Bennett, and John Phillips. A few of the stats (YAC and pressures/hits yielded) were provided by Pro Football Focus.
- Jason Witten
Witten is the one of the best blocking tight ends in the league. The difference between him and other top-notch blockers, though, is that he is also an incredible receiver. It is this versatility which is so crucial to his success. Witten yielded just one sack, one quarterback hit, and two pressures all season.
It may seem as though Witten is always in a route on pass plays, but this is not the case. The Pro Bowl tight end actually stayed in to block on 22.9% of all pass plays last season. This equates to 111 plays, meaning his one sack yielded is rather impressive for a tight end.
We originally gave Witten a solid “A” grade in blocking, but his penalty rate is a bit too high (he committed 11 on the season). He actually is a frequent culprit of false starts. Fans would likely make a much bigger issue out of his penalties if he wasn’t so effective in other aspects of the game.
As you can see in the chart below, Witten caught a ridiculous 77.7% of passes thrown his way in 2009. He also caught 94.0% of balls that were on-target (six drops on the season).
Expect Witten’s touchdown number to increase quite significantly in 2010. Touchdowns can sometimes be a fluky statistic, and there is nothing inherent in Witten’s game that should make him unable to score. With the loss of oft-dominating run-blocker left tackle Flozell Adams and the team likely to provide running back Marion Barber with less goal line touches, Witten should see a spike in scoring opportunities.
One last point: offensive coordinator Jason Garrett would be wise to send Witten out in routes more often. According to our film study, the Cowboys average nearly two more yards per pass when Witten is in a route than when he stays in to block.
- Martellus Bennett
Despite the general consensus among fans that Bennett had a horrible 2009 season, he actually performed quite well as a blocker. It is ironic that such an athletic player has developed faster as a blocker than a pass-catcher, but perhaps the way in which Witten goes about his business is rubbing off on Bennett.
Like Witten, though, we’d like to see Bennett’s penalty count decrease. Yes, it is difficult for tight ends to often block larger defensive ends, but a few of Bennett’s penalties were offensive pass interference.
Bennett obviously regressed as a pass-catcher in 2009. He caught only 51.7% of balls thrown his way, and just 15/21 on-target passes (71.4%). Bennett doesn’t have poor hands, so we think this was due more to a lack of concentration than anything else.
Bennett is dangerous after catching the ball (4.8 yards-after-catch-per-reception–wow, that is a lot of hyphens), so the key to his 2010 success will be mastering the mental aspect of the game so he can let his athleticism take over.
- John Phillips
Phillips’ pass-blocking sample size (only 26 snaps) is too small to draw meaningful conclusions, but not so for his run-blocking sample (126 snaps). In a study we performed on the effectiveness of fullback Deon Anderson, we compared Anderson’s stats to those of Phillips. What we discovered (listed to the left) was that Phillips was far inferior to Anderson as a blocker, at least out of the backfield.
The Cowboys averaged nearly two more yards-per-carry with Anderson in the game as compared to Phillips, and, surprisingly, .2 more yards-per-pass. Phillips’ rookie play was a pleasant surprise in 2009, but he has a long way to go before he can be considered a dominant blocker.
It is tough to grade Phillips as a receiver because of his limited sample size (only seven regular season catches). Rather than use purely statistics, this grade is based more on what we saw from Phillips on film. He displayed good route-running ability and solid hands (zero drops and a natural receiver). He averaged an impressive 6.6 yards-after-catch and showed he is capable of being an adequate runner after receiving the football.
Overall Tight End Grades:
1. Jason Witten: A- (93.0)
2. Martellus Bennett: B- (80.0)
3. John Phillips: C+ (78.0)
The Cowboys are obviously pretty set at tight end, but it is still a position to monitor in camp. First, there is a chance that Phillips beats out Bennett for the #2 spot behind Witten. Considering the frequency with which the Cowboys run two-tight end sets, that spot is a borderline starting one.
It is Bennett’s position to lose. He is much more athletic than Phillips and, at this point, a far superior blocker. However, Bennett has shown lapses in concentration and his commitment to football has been questioned by some. If Phillips wins the job, it will be due to his mentality more so than his talent.
Another situation to watch is the possible addition of a fourth tight end to the 53-man roster. This would likely come as the result of the release of Deon Anderson. In that scenario, the Cowboys would utilize a player such as undrafted TE/FB Scott Sicko in place of a true fullback.