By Nick Eatman
DallasCowboys.com Staff Writer
April 11, 2005, 4:56 PM (CDT) (Editor's Note: With the NFL Draft (April 23-24) closing in, DallasCowboys.com will take a closer look at each position over the next three weeks, profiling the Cowboys' needs, the top available players and even some past memorable picks made by the Cowboys. The fourth of this 11-part series will profile the tight end position.)
The Cowboys have been looking for the next Jay Novacek since he retired after the 1996 season. After failed attempts with other high draft picks, including David LaFleur, a first-round pick in 1997, the Cowboys might have finally found their tight end star in Jason Witten.
Witten had more than just a breakthrough year during his second season, setting several single-season club records, including most catches and receiving yards in a single-season by a tight end.
Witten earned a trip to the Pro Bowl, the first by a Cowboys tight end since Novacek was selected in 1995.
But Witten isn't the only reason the Cowboys are looking good at the position. Expected to return this season is six-year veteran Dan Campbell, who missed all but three games last season after undergoing surgery to repair torn ligaments in his foot. Campbell provides the team with leadership in both the locker room and the huddle, and is also one of the team's best blockers. His return should not only help the team's eventual starting right tackle, but will also allow Witten to be split out even more in the passing game.
The Cowboys drafted Sean Ryan in the fifth round a year ago, and after releasing him before the season and putting him on the practice squad, he eventually returned to the active roster and played in the final six games. But neither Ryan nor free-agent acquisition Brett Pierce caught a pass last year, both used almost exclusively in a blocking capacity.
And don't forget about the always-reliable Jeff Robinson, who serves as the team's deep snapper. Robinson caught two more passes last year - both for touchdowns - while playing in goal-line and short-yardage situations. Robinson has caught four passes in the last two years, each one resulting in a touchdown.
Help On the Way?
Now here is one position the Cowboys should feel rather good about heading into the draft. Witten looks like the steal of the 2003 draft, with the Cowboys getting him with the 69th overall pick. With already one Pro Bowl under his belt, Witten, who turns 23 in May, will likely be the Cowboys' main target at tight end for quite some time.
But that doesn't mean the Cowboys won't try to find some depth, most likely in the later rounds. The Cowboys did draft Ryan in the fifth round last year, and during the team's "Dallas Day" workout last week, the Cowboys did work out two tight ends - Joey Hawkins (Texas Tech) and Cody McCarty (TCU) - among the 22 local prospects who visited.
One player to keep an eye on is Arkansas' Matt Jones, who played quarterback in college but is being projected as either a wide receiver or a tight end. Jones (6-6, 242) has the size for a tight end, but his 4.37 speed in the 40-yard dash coupled with inexperience in blocking certainly suggest he'll probably play away from the line of scrimmage.
Like many other teams, the Cowboys are high on Jones, but to get him, they would likely have to spend a first-round pick. And with Witten and Campbell already in place, it's likely the Cowboys would project Jones to be a wide receiver if they did grab him.
Cream of the Crop
There have been five tight ends taken in the first round of the last three drafts, including Kellen Winslow Jr. going sixth overall to Cleveland last year, the highest a tight end has been selected in 21 years.
This year's tight end class has another projected first-round pick in Virginia's Heath Miller, who has been slotted anywhere from a top-15 pick to late in the first round. But Miller is the head of this class, despite leaving school after his junior season. Miller caught 70 passes as a sophomore in 2003, but only 41 last year when the Cavaliers went to a more run-oriented offense. Still, Miller has proven to be valuable in the red zone, catching 20 touchdown passes in three seasons.
Other tight ends expected to go in the first day of the draft include Stanford's Alex Smith, Joel Dreessen of Colorado State and Kevin Everett of Miami (Fla.).
The Cowboys were looking to find at least two, possibly three starting players with their first three draft picks back in 2003. After taking Terence Newman with the fifth overall pick, the Cowboys were sitting pretty in the second round, eyeing Tennessee tight end Jason Witten with the 38th overall pick.
However, when the Cowboys got on the clock, they were convinced they could get better value by drafting center Al Johnson of Wisconsin. They figured they could pick up a tight end later in the draft. So the Cowboys took Johnson and start evaluating the rest of the tight end class for a possible third-round pick.
But when the Cowboys' turn to pick once again at No. 69 arrived, Witten was amazingly still on the board. The Cowboys even received a phone call from another team, trying to trade for that spot because they had to have a certain player. As it turned out, that team wanted Witten, but it was too late, the Cowboys had already made the pick, getting a player they had a first-round grade on, in the third round.
After only two seasons, Witten has already arrived, making the Pro Bowl last year after setting single-season club records for catches (87) and receiving yards (980) by a tight end.
1. Redskins - Check
2. Dolphins - Check
3. Arizona -