Player spotlight: Jason Witten

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  1. jsond

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    Player Spotlight: Jason Witten
    By Ted Carlson, Senior Editor
    August 7, 2005 5:00 AM ET

    Witten had more catches and yards than Antonio Gates last year.

    Gonzo or Gates? Tony or Antonio? Chief or Charger?

    Fantasy owners face a quandary when addressing the top of the tight end rankings. Two record-setters are vying for the number one spot, and the choice between Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates likely comes down to your league's scoring system (touchdown-heavy vs. yardage-heavy).

    Gonzalez found himself similarly challenged prior to the 2003 campaign, just after a pair of 22-year-olds (Jeremy Shockey and Todd Heap) exploded during the 2002 season. The Giant caught 74 balls for 894 yards and two scores, the Raven nabbed 68 passes for 836 yards and six touchdowns, and the Chief's numbers (63 catches, 773 yards, seven scores) were on the decline. Gonzo vs. Shockey vs. Heap was a fierce debate. Well, as "fierce" as a discussion gets at a marginalized fantasy position.

    Fast forward to the 2004 campaign, when another 22-year-old tight end emerged and exceeded both Shockey and Heap's 2002 stats. Jason Witten pulled in 87 passes for 980 yards and six touchdowns. Only five tight ends in NFL history have ever caught more passes in a season: Gonzalez, Ben Coates, Todd Christensen, Ozzie Newsome, and Kellen Winslow (the Elder). Shannon Sharpe peaked at 87 in 1994. That's what we'd call pretty good company.

    However, despite his outstanding work and obvious upside, Witten isn't involved in any fantasy conversations with Gonzalez and Gates this preseason. Heck, most people likely wouldn't bring up his name when asked to name the best NFC East tight end (Shockey) or the most exciting young player on the Cowboys (Julius Jones). Witten is the tight end elephant in the room, but he's determined to ditch that status in the upcoming campaign.

    "I take it as a challenge," Witten recently told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "I want to show last year was no fluke. I want to put up those numbers every season. The only way to do that is with consistency. The goal is to be consistent and have staying power like Gonzalez."

    "I was teasing him before camp. I said, 'Well, you ready to be a star now or you just want to be a real good player?'" head coach Bill Parcells revealed.

    Witten blew away Jay Novacek's franchise records for catches and yards last season, and how will he step up to the next level and challenge Gates and Gonzo for the title of the league's and fantasy football's best tight end?

    "My goal is to take over in the red zone," he explained. "When I look at others like Gates and Gonzalez, that's where they are effective."

    That's music to fantasy owner's ears, but it also begs the question of if Witten can deliver. Does he have the skills to be a double-digit touchdown tight end like Gonzalez, Gates, Christensen, Winslow, and Sharpe?

    "He has everything," teammate Dan Campbell explained. "That is why he is the player he is. He is explosive. He is strong. He creates mismatches. You just can't cover him."

    Witten also has the respect of his opponents. Eagles' safety Michael Lewis told this summer, "First off, he's a big guy, strong enough to fight you off, to slap your hands away when you're checking him. And if you don't respect his speed, he'll turn on you and get deep down the middle. He's going to be good for a long, long time."

    Campbell knows a thing or two about unstoppable tight ends. After all, he played alongside Shockey when the brash youngster stormed in the NFL in 2002. Witten also has two more aspects working to his advantage: Parcells and new quarterback Drew Bledsoe. Parcells admits that he tries "to use the tight end in the passing game probably as much as any coach," and Bledsoe had a good vibe with the aforementioned Coates back in their New England days.

    So where's the downside? Why aren't fantasy owners ready to discuss a three-way battle at the top of the tight end rankings? Our guess: basketball. A hoops history, preferably collegiate, has apparently become a prerequisite for tight ends, and we'll have you know that Witten averaged 15 points and 12 rebounds as a high school senior. Any more questions?

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