Prior to the 2012 season, I proposed that tight end Jason Witten’s play has been slowly declining for years and that he’s soon in for a major drop in production. I wrote:
Moving forward, I think you’ll see Witten’s production remain relatively stable in 2012. As a receiver, 900 yards and five touchdowns is a reasonable expectation, assuming he doesn’t experience any setbacks with his lacerated spleen. In 2013 and beyond, however, Witten’s fall might be a swift one.
Witten’s total production was outstanding for Dallas last season, but that’s only because the team was forced to pass so frequently. In reality, Witten’s yards-per-route declined for the fifth straight year. He also continued his deterioration as a blocker.
Look, I’m a big Witten fan; he’s the type of player you want on your team, and he’s still effective. But he isn’t what he once was, and he’s now reached the age when most tight ends break down. The fall from grace for players at the position is usually a quick one.
In projecting Witten’s numbers, we need to appropriately determine his opportunities. He was targeted 150 times in 2012—by far the most of his career—after averaging 123 targets in the prior three seasons. Due to game situations, Dez Bryant’s emergence, and new faces in Dallas, we’re likely to see Witten’s targets drop precipitously to, say, 125.
Witten hauled in 72.5 percent of his targets over the past four seasons. Due to his natural regression as a receiver, that mark will likely decline a bit. If Witten catches 70 percent of his 125 targets, he’d bring in 88 passes in 2013. And even though Witten isn’t very explosive anymore, he’ll still probably average more than the 9.4 yards per catch that he posted in 2012. At 10.0 yards per reception, Witten would total 880 receiving yards.
Witten has never been an efficient red zone receiver, converting just 5.5 percent of his career catches into scores. That number might actually decline in 2013 due to the presence of Gavin Escobar, Terrance Williams, and other red zone threats. We can probably project Witten to beat his 2012 touchdown total of three, but not by much.
Final 2013 Projection: 88 receptions, 880 yards, 4 TDs
I think that it’s important to note that while the most likely scenario for Witten might be a drop in production like we see above, there’s also a very real chance of a big-time decline. Whether it’s due to injury—something Witten hasn’t struggled with during his career—or a worsening skill set, there’s a solid chance that this is the season Witten tanks. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the likely outcome, but the probability will increase dramatically each season. For the sake of the Cowboys, let’s hope it’s not 2013.
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.