The Cowboys are an interesting mix of young and old; a team that’s perhaps paradoxically built for the future and also to win now. The age of core players like Tony Romo, DeMarcus Ware, Jason Witten, and Jay Ratliff has many fans concerned that the Cowboys’ hourglass of opportunity might have just a few grains of sand yet to fall.
While the incredible rate of turnover in the NFL means teams are basically in a constant state of rebuilding, making a run while the aforementioned veterans are in their prime would obviously make things a bit easier for Dallas. In an attempt to see just how much time the Cowboys’ current roster has remaining to make a playoff run, I’ve looked at the historic rates of decline for various positions. Here at NBC, I also broke down past defensive tackle production to show why Jay Ratliff’s best days are probably behind him.
Today, I’m going to analyze another stud veteran who is currently on the shelf with an injury: tight end Jason Witten. Witten’s importance to the Cowboys is undeniable; he’s still one of the league’s premiere blocking-receiving combination tight ends. To track Witten’s career output against other tight ends, I’ve use Pro Football Reference’s approximate value. Below, you can see past tight end production broken down by age.
Historically, tight end production tends to peak around age 30. Unfortunately, the decline for tight ends after they hit the big 3-0 is a steep one. On average, tight ends see a 27 percent dip in production in the two seasons following their 30th birthday. Witten already turned 30 in May.
In comparison to other tight ends, Witten’s output has actually dipped a bit early. The keen observer may have noticed that Witten lost a step a few years ago. Don’t get me wrong—he’s still a really good tight end—but his production, in terms of receiving stats and total value, has already taken a hit.
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. What he has going for him is a tremendous work ethic—you know he’ll keep himself in shape and extend his career as much as possible—so perhaps he can buck past trends. You’ll likely see Witten decline as a receiver quicker than he loses any blocking ability, so he should still hold value for the ‘Boys for a few more seasons.
Nonetheless, finding Witten’s eventual replacement should be a priority for Dallas. With the selection of James Hanna in the sixth round of the Cowboys’ past draft, perhaps the organization has already made it a focus.
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.
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