The 2012 season was the first that I tracked the routes run by the Cowboys’ receivers on each play. I think there are obvious benefits to tracking routes, including looking for certain patterns in play-calling. One trend I noticed, albeit in a limited sample size, was failing to target then-rookie tight end James Hanna down the field.
I thought Hanna showed some good things as a receiver in 2012, which is why the selection of Gavin Escobar in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft was so perplexing. The Cowboys targeted Hanna only 11 times last year. That alone is probably evidence that the coaching staff wasn’t all that high on him; maybe he was terrible in practice or maybe he wasn’t a good enough blocker to stay on the field. Nonetheless, all but two of Hanna’s targets came in the final four games of the season, suggesting he was progressing.
Here are the 11 routes on which Hanna was targeted last season: drag (4), hitch (3), post (2), and flat (2). If you know anything about football, you know only the post is a vertical route. Actually, only one of Hanna’s 11 targets came more than 10 yards downfield. Yes, 10 of Hanna’s 11 targets were 10 yards or fewer, including eight that were five yards or fewer. The average depth of all of the targets was just 6.4 yards.
Hanna caught eight of his targets and totaled 86 yards, primarily because he averaged 6.5 yards on the ground after each catch. The Cowboys already had an athletic, pass-catching tight end who can’t block much but is capable of getting downfield as a receiver, but they drafted another athletic, pass-catching tight end who can’t block much but is capable of getting downfield as a receiver. Why not see what you have in Hanna before spending an early-round selection on a similar player?
It will be interesting to see if the Cowboys send Escobar downfield more than they did Hanna in 2012. Escobar is a really talented receiver, but compare his 4.84 40-yard dash to Hanna’s 4.49 time. Escobar is two inches taller, but his arms aren’t even a half-inch longer than Hanna’s and he weighs only five pounds more. I really think we’ll see Escobar improve the Cowboys’ red zone efficiency, even as soon as 2013, but between the 20s, they might already have a tight end on the roster who is just as talented.
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.