Will Jason Witten’s Return Provide a Spark for the Cowboys?

By John Shirley

Earlier today, Jason Witten decided to postpone his career in the broadcast booth and return to the football field. He is coming out of retirement for his 16th season with the Cowboys. But will his return be a success and help the Cowboys return to the playoffs and compete for a title?

Witten’s 2017 season (the last season he played) was, by just about every statistical measure, his worst in the NFL since his rookie year. Outside of his rookie year, 2017 saw him produce a career low in receptions, yards, and yards per reception. So it’s fair to wonder how much he has left, especially after spending last season in the booth.

Comparing his stats to the Cowboys’ TE unit from last season also paints a negative picture of his potential value in 2019.

Jason Witten Vs Cowboys’ TE’s in 2018

SeasonPlayerRecYdsYds/TgtTDs
2016Jason Witten696737.13
2017Jason Witten635606.45
2018All Dal TE’s687107.84

The Cowboys’ TE’s basic stat production was better in 2018 than with Witten in 2016 and 2017. When compared to Witten, the group of Blake Jarwin, Geoff Swaim, Dalton Schultz, and Rico Gathers accounted for a similar number of receptions, more yards, more yards per target, and a similar amount of touchdowns in 2018. It should be noted that during 2016 and 2017 seasons, Witten accounted for 87.5% of the Cowboys’ targets towards a TE and TE’s other than Witten combined for only 19 receptions over those two years. A big factor in this is Witten’s decreased production after the catch as he aged. In 2017, he only averaged 1.7 yards after the catch, while the 2018 group of TE’s averaged 5.5 yards after the catch.

A common narrative surrounding Witten during his last two seasons was that he provided a good safety net for a young Dak Prescott. While this may have been the case, it seems that the 2018 group provided an even better safety net. The table below shows that Prescott’s production when targeting a TE increased in 2018 after Witten retired.

Dak Prescott when targeting a TE

SeasonPlayerAttComp%On-Tgt%Y/A
2016Dak Prescott10572.4%81.9%7.1
2017Dak Prescott9771.1%78.4%6.9
2018Dak Prescott9174.7%85.7%7.8

Along with replacing him as a receiver, the 2018 group also did a good job of replacing him as a blocker. In both 2016 and 2017, Witten was asked to block on more plays than any other TE in the NFL. He was solid as a blocker, but the 2018 group of TE’s was even better, blowing only 5 blocks all season.

SeasonPlayerBlocking SnapsBlown Block %
2016Jason Witten5141.3%
2017Jason Witten4881.6%
2018All Dal TE’s6250.1%

In 2017, Jason Witten had 17.7 Total Points Earned (SIS’s overall value metric) from his receiving production. Cowboy’s TE’s in 2018 combined for 27.6 Total Points Earned from their receiving production.

Based on the numbers Witten had clearly declined during the last few years of his career, which should be expected of a TE in his late 30’s. So expecting him to provide much of a spark to the Cowboy’s offense in 2019 is a stretch, especially since the group that collectively replaced him has fared pretty well last season.

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