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Grading the ‘Boys in 2010, Part I: Tight Ends

Jonathan Bales

Last season, I graded every player on the Cowboys (who got a sufficient number of snaps) on their overall performance.  I called it “Grading the ‘Boys,” and enough of you seemed to like it for it to return this year.  Remember that these grades are based on efficiency, not total production.  We start with the tight ends. . .

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.  I personally am glad the Cowboys seek versatility in their tight ends, as 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, I 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.

Grades

  • Jason Witten

Blocking:  B+

Witten struggled a bit in the run game early in the 2010 season, but he picked it up later in the year.  His sub-par blocking and limited production in the passing game makes me wonder if he was playing hurt to begin the 2010 campaign.  Either way, Witten quickly returned to usual form.

He yielded two sacks on the season, but not a single quarterback hit or pressure.  Although it may seem as though Witten is always out in a route on pass plays, that’s actually not the case.  Witten stayed in to block on 23.8 percent of passes in 2010, up slightly from 22.9 percent in 2009.  You can see to the left that the Cowboys were slightly more effective with Witten blocking as opposed to in a route, reversing a trend from last season (when the offense averaged nearly two full yards more when Witten was in a route).

Witten also cut his penalty rate down from 11 (in 2009) to five.

Receiving: A

Last season, I provided Witten with an “A-” receiving grade.  This year, his numbers are nearly identical, but he recorded seven more touchdowns (nine total) and half the drops (only three in 2010).  Witten is still below average after the catch (he averaged only 4.1 YAC/reception this season), but his 76.4 percent reception rate is stellar.

The increase in touchdowns should come as no surprise.  Last season, I wrote this in my “Grading the ‘Boys: Tight Ends” segment:

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.

  • Martellus Bennett

Blocking: A-

Cowboys fans may be unhappy with Bennett’s production as a receiver, but he was dominant as a blocker again in 2010.  He didn’t allow a single sack and yielded only one hit and two pressures, despite being utilized as a blocker on the majority of his snaps.  I was quoted as saying I would rather put Bennett at right tackle than Marc Colombo, and that is still true.  He’s even better in the run game.

Receiving: B-

Bennett improved upon his 2009 receiving campaign by catching 75.0 percent of balls thrown his way (up from 51.7 percent last season).  That rate is right alongside Witten’s.  His 5.6 YAC/reception is also quite impressive, but his three drops (in 44 attempts) is too many.

The Cowboys may want to look at making Bennett more of a focal point in 2011, as he possesses the skill set to become a tremendous all-around tight end.  Right now, the largest reason he is considered a “bust” by fans is simply because he doesn’t receive many opportunities as a pass-catcher.  With Witten getting older, look for Bennett to receive closer to 70 looks next season.

Overall Tight End Grades

1.  Jason Witten: A- (91.0)

  • 2009 Grade: A- (93.0)

2.  Martellus Bennett:  B+ (88.0)

  • 2009 Grade: B- (80.0)

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Cowboys Training Camp Battles, Part VII: Martellus Bennett vs. John Phillips


By Jonathan Bales

In the first six parts of my Training Camp Battles Series, I analyzed the future of the nickel linebackerdefensive end, free safetyleft 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.

Scouting Reports

  • Martellus Bennett

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:

Blocking:  B+

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.

Receiving:  C-

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

Also from my 2009 Tight End Grades:

Blocking:  C-

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.

Receiving:  B-

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?

  • John Phillips

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.

Advantage

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.



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Cowboys News and Notes: 5/27/10 (Martellus Bennett, Orlando Scandrick, Patrick Crayton)

This is obviously huge praise for a guy on the same team as All-Pro tight end Jason Witten.  It also supports our “B+” grade for Bennett’s blocking in 2009.

We think Sensabaugh will improve in 2010, but it is way too soon to offer him a long-term deal.  We gave him a “C” overall grade for his work last year, as he gave up a 67.4% completion rate and had the worst Dallas Cowboys Times Pass Defense Rating.

Although Scandrick struggled a bit last year (we gave him a “C” overall grade), it would be a big blow to the team if this injury is more significant than it appears.  With Alan Ball now at safety, the Cowboys have only Cletis Gordon, sixth-round pick Jamar Wall, and undrafted rookie Bryan McCann behind the top three CBs.  ESPN Dallas agrees that cornerback depth is a concern.

Jerry Jones Supports New York Super Bowl

The Cowboys’ points-per-100 yards was 5.3–the lowest of any playoff team.  According to former coach Bill Parcells, good teams should score approximately seven points-per-100 yards.  We can think of no better way to increase this number than creating turnovers on defense.

We still maintain the Cowboys will keep six wide receivers, with Crayton being one of them.  Even if the Cowboys do let go of either Crayton or Sam Hurd, a player such as Titus Ryan could sneak onto the 53-man roster.