As I mentioned in my projection for running back Joseph Randle, it’s difficult to project rookies in their first season because we have no background of relevant production to study. Any projection is a simple combination of opportunity and efficiency, but estimating both of those numbers can be difficult when we don’t know 1) how the player will be used and 2) how he’ll stand up against NFL competition.
The best way to project rookies, then, is to find similar players and study how they’ve performed in the past. I did that with Randle, comparing him to both Noah Herron and Alfred Morris. In my pre-draft scouting report on Cowboys second-round pick Gavin Escobar, I compared the pass-catching tight end to Dennis Pitta. Although Escobar doesn’t have great speed at 4.84, that actually isn’t strongly correlated with success for tight ends. Size seems to be more important, and Escobar has it at 6-6 with 34-inch arms.
In projecting Escobar for 2013, we have to determine if he’ll be the No. 2 tight end. If he’s not—which is very possible with James Hanna on the roster—then he’s not going to do much of anything as a rookie because he won’t see the necessary targets. For the sake of this projection, though, we’ll assume Escobar will win the backup tight end job.
Last year, the Cowboys ran 314 plays with at least two tight ends on the field. That number has traditionally been higher, but the Cowboys were forced into a lot of “11” personnel and other receiver-heavy sets due to unfavorable game situations. With tight end now a strength and game situations figuring to improve, the ‘Boys are probably looking at around 500 plays with two or more tight ends in 2013. In comparison, Martellus Bennett averaged 499 snaps in his final three seasons in Dallas.
When Dallas has had two tight ends on the field, they’ve passed the ball 46 percent of the time. If Escobar wins true No. 2 tight end duties and plays 500 total snaps, he’d be looking at around 230 pass snaps as a rookie. We can effectively project Escobar to run a route on 200 of those plays based on his skill set. Even if Escobar is targeted on one-fifth of those plays—a higher rate than Tony Romo has targeted No. 2 tight ends in the past—he’d still receive only 40 targets.
So to be clear, if everything goes Escobar’s way in 2013, he’s still probably looking at only 40 or so passes, assuming Jason Witten remains healthy. Escobar should have no trouble hauling in a good portion of those targets because he’s not going to be the focal point for any defense, so 30 receptions is realistic. As a natural pass-catcher with run-after-catch ability, Escobar should average in the neighborhood of 14.0 YPR, giving him 420 yards as a rookie.
Escobar turned 13.9 percent of his catches into touchdowns in college, and I think he’ll continue his red zone success in Dallas. With the Cowboys’ sub-par rushing attack and Escobar’s length, don’t be surprised to see the tight end convert a high percentage of his rookie receptions into scores.
Final 2013 Projection: 30 receptions, 420 yards, 5 TDs
Again, Escobar’s range of production is vast. If he doesn’t win the No. 2 tight end job, he’ll be lucky to catch 15 passes. The above projection, while attainable, is probably close to Escobar’s ceiling.
Jonathan Bales is the founder of The DC Times. He writes for DallasCowboys.com and the New York Times. He's also the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft.