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TE Jason Witten Is No Longer Elite

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At Bleacher Report, I posted an analysis of Jason Witten, explaining why he’s no longer an elite tight end. It’s not a popular stance, but the truth is that Witten has morphed into a very average player over the last couple years.

If you look at NFL futures odds, you’ll see that the Cowboys are currently +275 to win the NFC East. That’s the same as the Giants, but significantly worse than the Eagles. One of the reasons Dallas is a team moving in a different direction than Philly is that they ignore the numbers, handing out “bad money” contracts like Witten’s five-year, $37 million deal that doesn’t expire until 2018.

So why is Witten no longer elite? From my B/R article:

Yards Per Target

The first way that we can measure Witten’s efficiency is by looking at what he does with his targets. Here’s a look at the progression of his yards per target. I marked the NFL league average for tight ends with white dash marks.

You can see that Witten was continually around the league average (8.0) in efficiency prior to 2012. That’s not horrible, considering that he always saw more targets than most tight ends and as workload increases, efficiency naturally decreases.

The fact that Witten was around average in efficiency prior to 2012 shows he was an above-average tight end, but probably not as efficient as you might have expected. The truth is that Witten has always been a really good player, but one who’s really been aided by bulk attempts.

Would we have considered Witten a monster receiving tight end if he had played on an offense that didn’t focus on him so heavily? Doubtful.

Again, that’s pre-2012. Look at what happened two seasons ago. In the year in which Witten broke the record for receptions by a tight end, he also turned in a career low in yards per target. And the drop wasn’t a small one; it was magnificent.

In his “career year” of 2012, Witten produced more than one yard less per target than an average NFL tight end. Is it now easier to see why predicting him to disappoint in 2013 was so easy?

Witten’s yards per target improved in 2013 with fewer looks, but his average was still the second-worst and below-average for a tight end. It’s difficult to label a player who is below-average in efficiency as “elite,” especially when they receive the fewest targets they’ve gotten in seven seasons.

 

Yards Per Route

Of all stats to analyze for receivers, my favorite is yards per route. That’s because it penalizes for not getting open (and thus failing to receive a target).

It’s also good for tight ends because it doesn’t penalize them when they stay in to block. One of the oft-overlooked aspects of Witten’s game is that he doesn’t stay in to block on very many passes.

Last year, he stayed in to block 13.6 percent of the time, according toPro Football Focus (subscription required), which ranked 28th of 35 qualifying tight ends. When the Cowboys pass, Witten is almost always an option for Romo, which will naturally inflate his stats. Yards per route adjusts for that.

Plus, yards per route does a better job than yards per target of displaying Witten’s value.

Even though Witten’s yards per route has declined every year since 2008, he was still well above the league average up until 2013. Part of that is due to receiving a high percentage of the Cowboys’ targets—again, the bulk opportunities obviously help—but Witten was also producing at a higher level a few years ago.

The fact that Witten’s yards per route declined in 2012, when he saw an unfathomable 150 targets, is a really strong sign that his play has been regressing. To produce just above league-average efficiency on a per-route basis despite seeing a target on 23.8 percent of his routes (a high rate) is a good indicator that Witten wasn’t actually playing at a level that his raw totals suggested.

 

Blocking Ability

The go-to rebuttal for Witten apologists is “but he’s an elite blocker, too.” That’s probably the case because it’s difficult to quantify blocking ability, and thus difficult to refute. Those who use Witten’s blocking to claim he’s still an elite tight end will tell you to “just turn on the tape.”

Well, Pro Football Focus does turn on the tape, but unlike traditional scouts, it quantifies what it sees. We can use its numbers on tight end blocking efficiency, at least in pass protection, to determine Witten’s value as a pass-blocker.

Here’s a look at Witten’s pass-blocking efficiency since 2007 versus the average NFL tight end.

 

Witten has adequately blocked his man on 95.1 percent of pass snaps. That’s better than the league average, although the effect perhapsisn’t as great as it appears; the average NFL tight end has pass-blocking efficiency just one percentage point lower at 94.1 percent.

That means we can expect Witten to allow one less pressure on Romo for every 100 pass snaps that he stays in to block as compared to a typical tight end.

But remember, Witten doesn’t remain in to block all that much—an average of just over 61 snaps per year over the past eight seasons. That’s it. So on average, Witten has “saved” 0.61 quarterback pressures per season for Dallas.

Now, can he really overcome a precipitous drop in receiving efficiency to remain an “elite” tight end because of 0.61 pressures per year?

 

Conclusion

Witten is a good tight end. He’s a great guy, a hard worker, and the type of player you want on your team.

He’s not an elite tight end.

If you’re going to continue to label the future Hall of Famer in that way, you need to somehow show that, despite being below-average in yards per target and yards per route in 2013, Witten still somehow offers enough value to overcome his lackluster efficiency. Presumably, those traits will need to be unquantifiable, like “he plays with such heart” or “he’s a good leader.”

OK, Witten is a good leader. He’s a good leader who produces like an average NFL tight end and is by no means an elite option for the Cowboys anymore.

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