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Wednesday, June 26, 2013
Cowboys position series: Tight ends

By Tim MacMahon

The fourth in ESPNDallas.com’s 10-part position series:

Roster locks: Jason Witten, Gavin Escobar, James Hanna

On the bubble: Dante Rosario, Lawrence Vickers*

Long shots: Colin Cochart, Andre Smith

*Plays fullback, a position the Cowboys might eliminate with their emphasis on multi-tight end sets.

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What’s new?: Stop us if you’ve heard this before: The Cowboys intend to feature two tight-end sets after using a second-round pick on a player to complement Jason Witten.

It didn’t pan out with Anthony Fasano. Martellus Bennett’s blocking helped, but he didn’t come close to becoming the impact player in the passing game the Cowboys envisioned. Is the third time the charm or will Gavin Escobar be strike three?

It remains to be seen whether the 6-foot-6, 251-pound Escobar, the 47th overall pick, will be ready to contribute as a rookie. The Cowboys picked him with the anticipation that Escobar’s hands, height and ball skills would allow him to help right away as a receiving threat, especially in the red zone. He needs a lot of work -- in the weight room and from a technical standpoint -- before he can be a reliable blocker.

James Hanna, the speedy 2012 sixth-round pick, should be ready for an increased role after showing some playmaking promise toward the end of his rookie season. Hanna’s presence made John Phillips expendable as a free agent and the decision to draft a pass-catching tight end in the second round somewhat of a head-scratcher.

Camp competition: Escobar isn’t just going to be given the No. 2 tight end role. He’ll have to beat out Hanna, and that’s far from a guarantee.

Late free-agent addition Dante Rosario and fullback Lawrence Vickers, who missed offseason workouts after undergoing back surgery, are probably competing for a roster spot. The Cowboys are seriously considering phasing out the fullback position, although they’d have to figure out a way to fill the lead-blocker role in short-yardage situations. Fullback has been a part-time position, with Vickers averaging less than 20 snaps per game last season.

Rosario has an edge over Vickers for two reasons not related to the Valley Ranch tight-end craze.

First, Rosario has proven himself capable of being a special teams contributor while playing for new special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia the past two seasons in San Diego. Rosario had five tackles, a fumble recovery and a blocked punt on special teams for the Chargers last season. Vickers had only one special teams tackle for the Cowboys.

Second, the Cowboys can create $1.2 million in cap space by cutting Vickers, money that could be useful for linebacker Sean Lee’s long-term contract extension. Rosario would only count $620,000 against the cap.

2013 hope: The Cowboys are counting on another Pro Bowl campaign from Witten, who returned to Hawaii last season after a one-year hiatus, catching a career-high 110 passes for 1,039 yards and three touchdowns despite a slow start due in part to a lacerated spleen suffered in the preseason opener.

They need Escobar and/or Hanna to step up as a receiving threat that must be respected by opposing defenses. There probably won’t be a lot of passes thrown to the young tight ends, with Tony Romo needing to feed Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, Witten, DeMarco Murray, etc., but they should have opportunities to make a handful of high-impact plays.

Expect to see Escobar/Hanna working the seam against one-on-one coverage relatively often. They need to be able to exploit those situations.

The Cowboys plan for their multi-tight end sets to put defenses in pick-your-poison mode. Stay in your base defense and the Cowboys will have mismatches in the passing game. Go to the nickel package and good luck stopping the run with a slot corner forced to pretend he’s a linebacker. Sounds good in theory, but we’ve heard it all before around here.

Future forecast: The 31-year-old Witten hesitates to estimate how many good seasons he has left, but he feels great physically and firmly believes that he’s in the middle of his prime.

Is Escobar his eventual successor? He better develop as a blocker before the Cowboys seriously consider that option.

After restructuring his contract this offseason, it would cost the Cowboys a small chunk of cap space to cut Witten before next season. There’s no chance of that happening.

If Witten has shown signs of slowing down, it might make sense in 2015. He’d represent $5.2 million in dead money if not on the roster that season, but that’s $3.3 million less than his scheduled cap hit if he’s still under contract. The cap savings for parting with Witten would be $5.6 million in 2016.

Finances aside, Witten isn’t close to done and would love to finish his career as a one-team man.