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Cowboys Have Plenty Of Options But Little Variety At Tight End

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Jason Witten will lead the Dallas Cowboys revamped set of tight ends. Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images.
Jason Witten will lead the Dallas Cowboys revamped set of tight ends. Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images.

It’s taken a backseat to juicier storylines from the 2013 offseason, but the question of how the Dallas Cowboys plan to use their four tight ends, all of whom can easily crack the 53-man roster, is actually a pretty big deal — mainly because they’re all geared to receive and not to block.

We don’t need scouting reports to know this quartet oozes athleticism and have hands blessed with pure football-snagging skills while possessing mediocre blocking abilities. To recap: Jason Witten is a first-ballot Hall of Famer; James Hanna boasts a 4.45 40-yard dash; Gavin Escobar has the height and length to be equally dangerous between the numbers and on sideline routes with back-shoulder throws; Dante Rosario is a veteran who will probably contribute more on special teams.

These days, every playoff team has at least one elite tight end or two solid ones, but reaching that point has created something of a personnel quandary in Dallas. It’s tainted the position as a huge indicator of an offensive identity built on a shaky foundation. With the drafting of Escobar and the investment in Hanna, Dallas has tethered itself even more tightly to the passing attack (which was already polished) without bolstering its network of blockers.

The Cowboys’ woeful offensive line and undermanned rushing attack have been brushed up by offseason moves but hardly revamped. The tight end position, sandwiched between the linemen and running backs in terms of its blocking requirements, received just as significant of an upgrade. Multiple tight end packages are a hot ticket among personnel strategists these days, having superseded the spread, three-wide base as the emblem of prolific passing offenses, and Dallas certainly seems to be trending in that direction.

When run correctly, multiple tight end sets confuse pre-snap reads, mitigate the range of inside linebackers and create space for receivers in the flats. Ideal for situations where pass or run plays are equally plausible, the tactic is easily tailored to a player’s individual levels of strength, speed and acceleration. Just think of New England Patriots TE Aaron Hernandez — an incendiary receiver — taking handoffs as a fullback for the most productive of passing teams.

For all these reasons, expect both Hanna and Escobar to get decent reps in 2013. The Cowboys’ arsenal is useless unless integrated in ways that capitalize on its versatility and keep defenses guessing. But until those opportunities present themselves, it’s crucial for the tight ends to work on their blocking techniques.

Information on a team’s strength and weaknesses is extremely thorough, detailed and accessible in the NFL. To that end, the Cowboys’ adversaries are taking note of the disproportionate mix of threatening receivers and adequate blockers. They’re going to make pressuring and disrupting Tony Romo their top priority because for all the complexities and situational uncertainties that go into preparing for a professional football game, sometimes the simplest strategy really is the best one.

If they really want to get the most out of their young tight ends, the Cowboys have to impress the urgency of good blocking on them. It’s not enough to be too fast for a linebacker, too big for a safety and have hands laced with pigskin magnets. Unless Romo plans on running the hurry-up offense in heavier doses, he’s going to be facing a lot loaded boxes and complicated blitz looks — and it’s going to happen early and often until Dallas proves it can handle the heat.