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)