Sat, 19 Sep 2020

TE: The Biggest Question For 2020

Dallas Cowboys
23 May 2020, 20:24 GMT+10

Friday: Need to Figure Out Thursday: Ready to Compete Wednesday: Don't Forget About Tuesday: What We Know Monday: What's New

With the NFL Draft completed and free agency at least slowing down here as the summer approaches, it's time to take a closer look at every position.

Each day, we will dissect a different aspect about the position, ranging from position battles, to under-the-radar players, to simply answering questions that have yet to be resolved.

This week, we continue the series with the tight end position:

The Biggest Question For 2020

Need to Figure Out

More than anything else, this team needs to figure out if Blake Jarwin is a star.

The guy obviously has a tremendous amount of upside. He showed enough of it as a rookie to prompt the front office into offering him a roster spot to prevent him from being poached off the practice squad. He continued to show it in 2018 and 2019, which is how he earned a handsome contract extension off the strength of just 11 starts.

For the record, Jarwin's contract isn't so large that it's unwieldy. His average salary ranks him only 20th in the NFL among tight ends. It's a very fair deal.

It's still a deal for a guy you expect to play a lot - and to play well. Jarwin has offered every indication that he will, but now it's on him to deliver. If he can shine as this team's top tight end, it will take the Cowboys' offense to a new level. If he falters, then it raises questions about the best way to improve the position moving forward.

How Does The Depth Chart Shake Out?

Ready to Compete

This whole thing feels like it's about to be a competition.

Obviously, the size of Jarwin's contract indicates that he's due for a lot of playing time. But in a tight end group with this many unknowns, it feels like almost everything is up for grabs.

The math says the Cowboys will likely keep three tight ends, perhaps four. Jarwin is the only one that looks like a lock to make the roster, as there simply aren't a lot of other guarantees among this position group.

Is it possible that an unsung player like Cole Hikutini or Sean McKeon could jump up and grab a roster spot? Sure. Is it possible that Dalton Schultz or Blake Bell could play well enough to command a healthy chunk of playing time? Absolutely.

That's what should make this group so fun. For years, the tight end depth chart has been set by Witten's presence as the starter. This time around, it feels like all these jobs are up for grabs.

Two Unsung Options You Haven’t Heard Of

Don't Forget About

It'd be a mistake not to mention two players who aren't yet on the radar.

He has yet to appear in a game for the Cowboys, but Cole Hikutini has quietly made an impression inside The Star.

Originally an undrafted free agent in 2017, Hikutini made brief stops with the San Francisco 49ers and Minnesota Vikings. Minnesota released him prior to the start of the 2019 season, and the Cowboys signed him to their practice squad. He spent the season practicing with the team, and the Cowboys opted to sign him to a futures contract at the conclusion of the season.

With just two NFL catches on his resume, there's not much to judge at the professional level. But Hikutini was a valuable target at Louisville, catching 50 passes for 668 yards and eight touchdowns during Lamar Jackson's Heisman Trophy season. A knee injury sustained during the Cardinals' bowl game eventually pushed him off draft boards, but the talent is clearly there.

The other name to know is a fellow undrafted player, Sean McKeon. The Cowboys liked the Michigan tight end enough to draft him, but they managed to acquire his services in undrafted free agency.

Michigan didn't lean on McKeon much during his junior and seasons, as he only caught 27 passes in the last two years. But at 6'5, 242 pounds, he has the frame required to play the position on the pro level. On a depth chart with this little in the way of proven production, McKeon could make some noise when practices eventually begin.

Getting To Know The Belldozer

WHAT WE KNOW

We know that all of these guys have a lot of NFL experience. What we don't know is whether any of them are quality NFL starters. To this point, none of them have been presented with much of an opportunity.

Jarwin's experience has already been detailed. He has 11 NFL starts, but has never genuinely been considered the Cowboys' starter, playing less than half the team's offensive snaps.

The same can be said for Schultz. He started seven games in 2018, when Jason Witten was retired - but only ever in multiple-tight end sets.

Bell has played for four different teams across a five-year career, making him the most experienced option in the room. But with 65 career appearances, he has only started 19 times and has caught just 38 career passes. His single best effort came as a rookie in 2015, when he caught 15 balls for 186 yards for the San Francisco 49ers.

There's plenty of reason for optimism. Across two seasons as a backup, Jarwin in particular has flashed a lot of big-play potential. He scored three touchdowns in one game against the New York Giants in 2018, and he showed a penchant for making plays downfield last season.

But the fact still remains: what we know is that the Cowboys' tight end group is one of the most unproven units on the roster.

How Does This Group Look Without Witten?

WHAT'S NEW

In a word, everything.

Yes, strictly speaking the names are familiar. Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz are entering their fourth and third seasons with the Cowboys, respectively. But with Jason Witten off to the Oakland Raiders, it's officially a new era at the tight end position.

That change was clearly signified earlier this spring, when the Cowboys signed Jarwin to a $22 million contract extension. Jarwin has shown a lot of promise in his three seasons with the team, but this is new territory.

Consider this: across 33 career games, Jarwin has made just 11 starts. And when he has started, it has always been in a multiple-tight end formation, alongside either Witten or Geoff Swaim. He has never been asked to carry the load as the main tight end in an offense.

Judging from the size of his extension, that's likely about to change. It's understandable why the Cowboys would make the investment. Since signing as an undrafted free agent in 2017, Jarwin has grown by leaps and bounds.

Despite playing just 38% of the Cowboys' snaps last season, he demonstrated some impressive ability as a downfield weapon and a threat for yards after the catch. Jarwin caught just 31 passes last year, but he finished with 365 yards. He picked up 146 of those yards, roughly half of them, after the catch, displaying a consistent ability to make things happen with the ball in his hands.

It's not just Jarwin, though. It will be interesting to see how an all-new coaching staff manages an unproven group of tight ends. Schultz is entering his third NFL season with just seven starts and 13 receptions to his name. The Cowboys also signed veteran backup Blake Bell, who played in 15 games and caught eight passes for Kansas City last season.

The Cowboys briefly experienced life without Witten in 2018, when the perennial Pro Bowler retired to try his hand at broadcasting. Even then, there was a lot more carryover, as the same coaching staff was working with his replacements.

This time around, it's a brand new cast of coaches managing an unproven group of players. The Cowboys hired Lunda Wells to coach tight ends in January, after he coached the position for the New York Giants in 2018 and 2019.

For a position that has enjoyed so much consistency over the past 15 years, it's safe to say this coming season will be quite new.

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