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Spotlight: Jason Witten

posted by Jason Wood on Aug 14th


Jason Wood's thoughts

Jason Witten is the best tight end in the NFL.

Let me give you a moment to take that in.

Jason Witten is the best tight end in the NFL. Not Antonio Gates. Not Jermichael Finley. Not Vernon Davis. Not Dallas Clark. It's Jason Witten.

As fantasy football enthusiasts, we sometimes forget that there's more to playing tight end than simply catching passes - and although Jason Witten is one of the best at that particular skill, it's his other abilities that set him apart from the other household names at the position.

According to ratings from Pro Football Focus, who track every play and grade every position, Witten ranked:

  • 1st among all TEs in run blocking
  • 5th among all TEs in pass blocking
  • 2nd among all TEs in receiving

But at the end of the day, fantasy owners really don't care about a player's all-around game, they care about the statistical categories. Lucky for Witten (and me), he's also the best at fantasy production, too.

Since taking over as the Cowboys full-time starter 7 seasons ago, Witten has been a pillar of consistency:

Year Recs Yds YPR TDs FPTs FantRnk
2004 87 980 11.3 6 134 TE3
2005 66 757 11.5 6 112 TE6
2006 64 754 11.8 1 81 TE12
2007 96 1,145 11.9 7 157 TE1
2008 81 952 11.8 4 121 TE2
2009 94 1,030 11.0 2 115 TE8
2010 94 1,002 10.7 9 154 TE1

Take note of the fact Jason Witten has been the #1 fantasy tight end in two of the last four seasons. How many times has Antonio Gates been the #1 TE over the span? ZERO. Gates hasn't topped the fantasy ranks since 2006, yet he routinely gets drafted ahead of Witten. Now, if you want to argue that Gates is a better player on a PER GAME basis, I won't argue that point.

Player Gms Recs Yards YPR TDs FPTs PPG
Witten 112 582 6,620 11.4 35 872 7.8
Gates 104 505 6,616 13.1 67 1,064 10.2

As you can see, Witten and Gates are very close in their careers thus far. Witten has the SIGNIFICANT advantage in receptions over the same number of years as a starter, yet Gates has the major edge in fantasy points thanks to nearly doubling Witten in the TD department.

Witten & the Missing Touchdowns
The one fly in the ointment for Jason Witten is his historical lack of TD productivity. There are 25 tight ends that have at least 200 receptions in the last 10 years, and of those - Witten ranks just 20th in TD%.

Rank First Last Recs TDs TD%
1 Bubba Franks 228 31 13.60%
2 Antonio Gates 529 69 13.04%
3 Vernon Davis 237 29 12.24%
4 Visanthe Shiancoe 207 24 11.59%
5 Marcus Pollard 245 28 11.43%
6 Dallas Clark 393 44 11.20%
7 Jerramy Stevens 202 22 10.89%
8 Daniel Graham 222 24 10.81%
9 Alge Crumpler 373 39 10.46%
10 Heath Miller 286 29 10.14%
11 Ben Watson 235 23 9.79%
12 Todd Heap 467 41 8.78%
13 Desmond Clark 295 24 8.14%
14 Tony Gonzalez 808 64 7.92%
15 Chris Cooley 420 33 7.86%
16 L.J. Smith 233 18 7.73%
17 Owen Daniels 245 17 6.94%
18 Jeremy Shockey 510 33 6.47%
19 Randy McMichael 387 24 6.20%
20 Jason Witten 617 36 5.83%
21 Kellen Winslow 362 21 5.80%
22 Jermaine Wiggins 218 12 5.50%
23 Zach Miller 226 12 5.31%
24 Bo Scaife 251 12 4.78%
25 Eric Johnson 240 9 3.75%

Now it's worth pointing out that Witten had 9 touchdown receptions last season, so it's possible we're making a mountain out of a mole hill of the past. But the fact is, outside of last year, Witten has struggled to find the end zone in proportion with the rest of his off-the-charts skills.

Are there too many targets in town?
Usually when a tight end produces top tier fantasy numbers, it's because the team lacks weapons elsewhere - or more specifically, lacks more than one capable wide receiver. Tony Gonzalez hasn't had multiple WRs alongside him in Kansas City or Atlanta. Antonio Gates has rarely had one elite WR, much less two. Believe it or not, Witten has benefitted from that, too. He's had Terrell Owens, Terry Glenn and Miles Austin in the lineup, but there's rarely been a season where two WRs were pushing for 1,000+ yards.

2006 = A Harbinger of Bad Tidings?
The only season when Jason Witten had multiple WRs putting up major numbers was in 2006, when both Terry Glenn and Terrell Owens broke the 1,000-yard mark.

  • Terry Glenn - 70 recs for 1,047 yards and 6 TDs
  • Terrell Owens - 85 recs for 1,180 yards and 13 TDs<.li>

In that season, Witten was good, but he wasn't great. In fact, it was the only season he's failed to produce Top 10 numbers. Let me say that again, the only season Witten had two WRs eclipse the 1,000-yard mark ended up in his worst season, by far.

Why is that relevant? Because the Cowboys have Miles Austin and Dez Bryant. While I think Bryant is a knucklehead, anyone with a keen eye has to admit that Bryant absolutely could eclipse the 1000-yard mark over 16 games. He's just that good. And Austin had crushed that mark for two seasons, and remains in his prime.

So which way do I fall on the Witten debate? I'm still onboard for him finishing atop the fantasy rankings - particularly in PPR leagues. Tony Romo is capable of throwing 4,000-4,500 yards and 30-35 TDs, so I don't view the emergence of Dez Bryant as a zero sum game. You don't suddenly stop throwing to a guy that's given you 90+ receptions and 1,000+ yards, while catching more than 70% of his targets. Witten will remain a focal point of this offense. Might he take a step back? Sure, but even if he gives you 80 receptions and 850-900 yards, he's still one of the top two or three at his position.

Positives

  • Jason Witten has ranked #1 twice in the last four years, including 2010 -- which is 2 more times than Antonio Gates has finished #1 over that span
  • Tony Romo is one of the best quarterbacks in the league and they have a long established rapport
  • Witten is an iron man, he's always on the field and is guaranteed to be one of the most targeted TEs in the NFL

Negatives

  • Witten has one of the worst TD% rates among his contemporaries, in spite of playing on a prolific scoring offense
  • The one season Jason Witten had to deal with dual 1,000-yard WRs, he put up his most disappointing fantasy year (he was TE12)...and this year Miles Austin and Dez Bryant could vie for 1,000+ yards
  • The Cowboys have questions along the offensive line, and Witten is one of the best blocking TEs in football -- he could have to stay in on blitz pickups more than we would like to see

Final thoughts

Jason Witten seems to be one of those elite guys that no fantasy owner actively targets. Just like people never take Philip Rivers first among QBs, but are happy if they land him, that's how people feel about Witten. Yet, if you compare Witten's situation and productivity against the other top fantasy TEs, it's hard to argue he's not in enviable position. Antonio Gates is better on a per game basis, but he missed six games last year and is still hurting in training camp. Dallas Clark has a shorter pedigree and is also coming back from major injury. Vernon Davis doesn't have a quarterback. And Jermichael Finley is 90% potential, 10% evidence so far. I would love to land Witten in the 4th round or later, particularly in PPR leagues. He's going to anchor the Cowboys passing attack this year, no matter what Dez Bryant and Miles Austin do.


Quotations from the message board thread

To view the entire Player Spotlight thread (there's a ton of fantastic commentary in there), click here.

rzrback77 said:

Jason Witten has been a very productive cog in the Dallas Cowboy offensive machine for seven straight years and he has played for them his entire career, which spans eight years. He was drafted in the third round before the 2003 season. He just turned 29 years old.

His stats over his career:

03 - 15 gms 49 targets 35 catches 71.4% 347 yards 9.9 ypc and 1 TD
04 - 16 gms 120 targets 87 catches 72.5% 980 yards 11.3 ypc and 6 TDs
05 - 16 gms 89 targets 66 catches 74.2% 757 yards 11.5 ypc and 6 TDs
06 - 16 gms 93 targets 64 catches 68.8% 754 yards 11.8 ypc and 1 TD
07 - 16 gms 141 targets 96 catches 68.1% 1145 yards 11.9 ypc and 7 TDs
08 - 16 gms 121 targets 81 catches 66.9% 952 yards 11.8 ypc and 4 TDs
09 - 16 gms 124 targets 94 catches 75.8% 1030 yards 11.0 ypc and 2 TDs
10 - 16 gms 128 targets 94 catches 73.4% 1002 yards 10.7 ypc and 9 TDs

The consistency, particularly in the most recent four years is undeniable. In this four years, Witten ranked 1st, 2nd, 8th, and 1st, and that is in non-ppr leagues. Hard not to focus in on those numbers and be confident with an early round pick.

He probably will not meet his stats from a year ago as he had the most targets for the Cowboys, but will remain a factor in the game plans and should see similar opportunity as Dez Bryant and Miles Austin. If he slips to the third or fourth drafted TE in your league, grab him with confidence.

Concept Coop said:

PEOPLE:

If you watched the games, Witten getting more looks had nothing to do with Romo/Kitna. The Dallas offensive line got healthy and allowed Garrett to use Witten the way he wanted to - the way he has been used for 4 years.

There is zero logic in using a 5 game sample over 3+ years of Witten being Romo's favorite target.

ALSO:

Witten's numbers went up when Bryant started getting more involved in the offense. In understanding Garrett's offense, you will understand that Witten is not going to be bumped down the read list. So unless Garrett drastically changes his play calling, it is Austin who could suffer if Bryant is a stud (still a question) - not Witten. Witten has the most unique skill set out of the 3, as far as what they offer, even exclusively in the passing game. He is a major weapon who is harder to take out of games than either of the two WRs - he is a bigger mismatch and easier to scheme open.

He could have a down year, but the generic "Kitna favored him and Bryant will steal targets" answer is flawed.

fightingillini said:

First thing, his targets have stayed the same in the past 3 years....about 125. I think he gets about 115-120 with Bryant emerging.

Nobody is saying that Witten won't have a solid year. No one is saying that Witten won't be a top 6-7 TE. IMO he won't have the year that he had last year, we're saying that he will have a down year compared to last year.

Why do I think that? Dez Bryant. The guy is a stud in the making. If you're the Cowboys, don't you want to get the ball to your playmakers? That's Bryant, Miles Austin and Felix Jones, not Jason Witten. Witten will still be excellent in 3rd and short situations when you need a key catch and will catch his share of seam routes, but if Bryant has the big year that I think he's going to have, it will likely be at the expense of Witten.

Second, Witten had a career year in TDs. He has only averaged 5 TDs a year prior to that. He's not a big threat in the redzone.

Also, with Romo coming off of injury, if the DAL OL doesn't do a good job of pass protecting, you may see Witten block more. This is a minor issue, but something to keep in mind.


Jason Witten projections

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