How Witten’s retirement affects Cowboys’ Draft approach

Written By Greg Lehr

Dallas Cowboys’ cornerstone tight end Jason Witten is reportedly set to retire from the NFL after 15 seasons, according to multiple reports. Witten had mentioned the idea of playing until he was 40 as recently as last year, but as it turns out, the 35-year-old iron man has the opportunity to walk away on his own terms after playing in 235 consecutive games (239 total career games), both of which are Cowboys franchise records. In fact, Witten has started each and every game since his rookie season in 2003, becoming an 11x Pro Bowler and a 2x first-team All-Pro (2007 and 2010) in the process.

According to Chris Mortensen, Witten plans to transition into the high-profile position as the leading analyst on ESPN’s Monday Night Football. He would be the third former Cowboys player to hold a current job as leading analysts for major networks, joining Troy Aikman (FOX) and Tony Romo (CBS).

Witten leaves the game as the fourth-leading receiver in NFL history with 1,152 career catches, behind only Jerry Rice, Tony Gonzalez, and Larry Fitzgerald. He is not only the Cowboys’ franchise leader in receptions but also is the franchise record-holder in receiving yards (12,448) and is third in TDs (68) per Pro Football Reference. He is an 11x Pro Bowler and 2x first-team All-Pro.

Prior to these retirement reports, Dallas appeared comfortable with their tight end situation and seemed reluctant to call the position a “need” coming into the NFL Draft. However, Witten’s decision leaves the Cowboys in a bit of a bind with Geoff Swaim, Blake Jarwin, and Rico Gathers as the only tight ends currently on the roster. This comes just weeks after second-string tight end James Hanna announced his retirement due to ailing knee injuries. Although Cowboys COO Stephen Jones has said they “feel really good” about these three tight ends going into next year, one has to think that Witten’s retirement creates a new sense of urgency this weekend on days 2 and 3 of the Draft.

With South Carolina’s Hayden Hurst being the only tight end selected on day one of the NFL Draft, there should be plenty of options available for Dallas to explore as they look to help fill the hole created by Witten’s apparent departure. Dallas Goedert (South Dakota St.) is the top tight end on the board heading into day 2 and was ironically named after the Dallas Cowboys. He has shown to be a balanced player who can be a threat as a receiver while also contributing as an inline blocker, which should be attractive to the Cowboys based on how much they require of their tight ends in the running game. Mike Gesicki (Penn St.) and Mark Andrews (Oklahoma) are other top options available, but they would resemble more of an oversized receiver than a tight end in the Cowboys run-heavy offense. They are athletic mismatches due to size and speed at the position, but with Rico Gathers on the roster, it would be a surprise to see them go with this type of tight end. One more name to keep an eye on, particularly in the third round, is Ian Thomas (Indiana). Thomas is not as refined as the other previously mentioned prospects, but his upside as both a receiver and a blocker is worth legitimate consideration.

Combining the new need at tight end with the already existing need at receiver from the Dez Bryant release, don’t be surprised if Dallas takes multiple pass-catchers on days 2–3 of the Draft.

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