By Jonathan Bales
In the first six parts of my Training Camp Battles Series, I analyzed the future of the nickel linebacker, defensive end, free safety, left tackle, wide receiver, and cornerback positions.
Today, I will take a look at the current battle between tight ends Martellus Bennett and John Phillips for the No. 2 job behind starter Jason Witten. Recently, offensive coordinator Jason Garrett seemed to indicate that the competition for the second tight end spot is quite open. He said there will be “healthy competition” at every position and when referring to Phillips, Garrett claimed:
Every opportunity he gets, he seems to make the catch, make the block, do the little thing that helps our football team. He did that really all throughout last year in a limited role, and he has a little bit more of a role with Martellus out here the first four or five practices. He’s doing it. It’s not always flashy, but he always seems to make the block or make the catch or do something that helps our offense.
With Bennett currently sidelined due to an ankle injury, Phillips has stepped up. On Monday, he had what Jason Witten labeled “his best practice ever,” followed by perhaps an even better performance on Tuesday.
Will the less flashy second-year man be able to overtake Bennett for the backup tight end spot? Let’s take a look at the scouting reports.
Bennett may still need to mature off of the field before he can flourish on it. He isn’t a bad kid by any means, but he sometimes does boneheaded things. He’s even led me to question if Dallas would be better off without him.
On the field, Bennett is actually a little underrated (at least in terms of blocking). Take a look at what I wrote about him in my 2009 Tight End Grades:
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.
Also from my 2009 Tight End Grades:
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 I performed on the effectiveness of fullback Deon Anderson, I compared Anderson’s stats to those of Phillips. What I discovered (listed below) 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 I 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.
Pros/Cons of Starting. . .
- Martellus Bennett
Bennett is more athletic than Phillips and offers a higher upside. He has the potential to be an outstanding all-around tight end. The problem is that he suffers from frequent mental lapses and has yet to cash in on that potential.
Bennett’s skill set makes him more of an in-line tight end/slot player. He can be split out wide and, although he struggled there last season, possesses the ability to play as a sort of “big receiver.”
The addition of Dez Bryant means the Cowboys will likely use more three-receiver sets and spread formations, though, so Bennett’s snaps could be limited. After all, who would you prefer line up outside for the ‘Boys on 3rd and 7: Bryant or Bennett?
Like Bennett, Phillips can be moved around the field. He will not flourish out wide, however, and is even inferior to Bennett as an in-line tight end at this time. Phillips does have the ability to play as an H-Back (a tight end/fullback hybrid), however, which Bennett really does not. This could be of use to a Dallas offense that figures to be more spread out in 2010.
Some have been predicting the Cowboys might even retain no true fullback, using Phillips at the spot when needed. However, as I stated above, Phillips has a long way to go as a blocker, so expect Deon Anderson to hold onto his job–for now.
The Bennett/Phillips battle is an interesting one due to the varying nature of their skill sets. Bennett is currently a much better blocker and has the ability to succeed out wide, but the addition of Dez Bryant could make the former trait less valuable (if the team is in less two-tight end sets) and the latter irrelevant altogether.
Right now, Phillips is making up ground on Bennett, but he is also competing just as much with fullback Deon Anderson for playing time. I believe Anderson is the superior blocker, but Phillips obviously offers more athleticism as a legitimate pass-catching threat.
Once Bennett returns from injury, it will be interesting to see how offensive coordinator Jason Garrett splits up the tight ends reps. You can probably expect Bennett to regain his No. 2 gig. Don’t think for a second the coaching staff doesn’t value his blocking ability.
Bennett is on a much shorter leash this year than in the previous two, however, meaning an outstanding preseason from Phillips, particularly as a blocker, could win him the job.