- Dan Graziano, ESPN Staff Writer
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In the final 20 days before the start of the regular season, we are counting down the top 20 players in the NFC East. For a full explanation, see this post.
No. 15 -- Jason Witten, Cowboys TE
The NFC East has more spectacular players, but there are few as reliable as Witten, who ranks third among tight ends in NFL history with 696 catches and fifth with 7,909 receiving yards. As the Cowboys' offense has shifted and changed around Tony Romo in recent years, Witten has hung in as the one constant, averaging 89 catches and 1,014 yards over the last five seasons. His numbers may have taken a step back last year, especially as Romo grew comfortable looking to Laurent Robinson in the red zone. But Witten was also needed more as a blocker last year as the offensive line struggled and the run game became a higher priority with the emergence of DeMarco Murray.
As the Cowboys approach 2012 with a plan to lean hard on Murray and with uncertainty in that No. 3 receiver spot vacated by the free agent Robinson, one of their chief reasons for offensive optimism has been the presence of the 30-year-old Witten. That's why his spleen injury, suffered in the preseason opener against the Raiders, is such a significant concern. Witten is the rare NFL player who can be counted on as a constant, and the Cowboys don't have anyone who can step right in and do exactly what he does for their offense. Without him, Romo would likely be at sea.
Assuming he comes back healthy and soon, Witten will be a vital contributor to this season's Cowboys. They might need him to stay in and block more, especially with Martellus Bennett having left via free agency for the Giants. But if that's the case, he offers value there. And when he's out running routes, his value to Romo is that the quarterback knows his tight end is going to be where he's supposed to be -- and that he'll almost certainly make the play.
Rankings so far:
16. Dez Bryant, WR, Cowboys
17. DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles
18. Osi Umenyiora, DE, Giants
19. Evan Mathis, G, Eagles
20. Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, Giants