Fantasy Football: Don't Expect Big Things from Jason Witten

After coming out of retirement, Jason Witten will look to become a viable fantasy player at a shallow tight end position. But is there too much working against him?

On Thursday, Jason Witten announced his return to football, signing a one-year, $3.5 million deal with the Dallas Cowboys. The 37-year-old could make up to $5 million with incentives, though he's expected to play a smaller role this year.

While it seems that football fans nationwide are celebrating Witten's exit from the Monday Night Football booth, it is now time to speculate what his return means for fantasy football purposes and for season-long prop bets. And after missing an entire season, Witten sure has some obstacles to overcome if he's going to be a useful asset in 2019.

The Dak Effect

The last two seasons Jason Witten played were also Dak Prescott's first two seasons in the league. During that time, Witten amassed 182 targets, 132 receptions, 1,233 receiving yards and 8 touchdowns. He graced fantasy owners with six top-12 PPR (weekly) finishes in 2016 and five more in 2017. Each season, he finished as the ninth-best fantasy tight end in total points.

But in his absence, and with more experience under Prescott's belt, how have Cowboys tight ends fared?

This chart compares Witten's 2016 and 2017 performances to the 2018 performances of Geoff Swaim and Blake Jarwin.

Player Year Targets Target Share NEP PPR Pts/G QB Rating when Targeted
Jason Witten 2016 95 20.6% 44.95 10.2 N/A
Jason Witten 2017 87 18.0% 41.94 9.3 108.4
Geoff Swaim 2018 32 11.9% 9.90 6.2 108.6
Blake Jarwin 2018 36 9.0% 32.93 6.3 116.3

Without Witten in the lineup, Prescott targeted his top two tight ends a total of 68 times, well below the target total that Witten commanded. Each of his metrics, outside of quarterback rating when targeted, was much better than Swaim and Jarwin's 2018. Considering that Swaim was in his second season and Jarwin was in his first, both competing with one another, this could be easy to rationalize.

However, it should be noted that Jarwin saw a significant rise in production late in the 2018 season. In the final four games of the season, Jarwin ran 98 routes and was targeted 25 times. He was Week 14's TE10 in PPR scoring, the TE9 in Week 16, and the TE1 in Week 17, in which he recorded 8 targets, 7 receptions, 119 yards and 3 touchdowns. In three of those games Jarwin collected at least seven targets. And as we know in fantasy, targets lead to production.

Granted, in the Cowboys' two playoff games against the Seattle Seahawks and the Los Angeles Rams, Jarwin fell back to his low floor. He totaled 5 targets, 5 receptions, 32 yards and 0 touchdowns across the two contests. The hope for Jarwin is that he can take his regular season finish and bring that momentum into 2019. And why not? He displayed a high-ceiling ability. Even if he garners just a few more targets on a lower split of the tight end snaps, that will still eat into Witten's production significantly.

Other Receiving Options

Witten does not find himself on a team absolutely void of talent and options. He will be returning to a team in which four players received at least 68 targets (and the two tight ends combined for 68 targets to boot).

Player Targets Receptions Receiving Yards Receiving TDs
Ezekiel Elliott 95 77 567 3
Cole Beasley 87 65 672 3
Amari Cooper 76 53 725 6
Michael Gallup 68 33 507 2

Amari Cooper and Ezekiel Elliott easily become Witten's largest concern for targets. After joining the team in Week 9 of the regular season, Cooper commanded 76 targets from Prescott. Those 8.44 targets per game would translate to 135 targets if taken over a single season. If Prescott maintains his 526 attempts in 2019, Cooper's 135 targets would equate to an attainable 25.66% target share. In 2017, Prescott targeted an inefficient Dez Bryant 132 times for a 27.1% target share.

For Elliott, he caught 77 of his 95 targets, a massive jump from 38 in 2016 and 39 in 2017. Elliott's 18% target share, combined with Cooper's 25.66% mark, would already eliminate 43.66% of Prescott's attempts.

This is without considering Cole Beasley and Michael Gallup. In his three seasons with Prescott, Beasley averages 83 targets per year. Currently, it is an unknown if Beasley will return to the Cowboys in 2019, as the free agent is reportedly seeking a contract worth $20 million guaranteed. If he does return, it would signify that the Cowboys value him as a major part of their offense and would significantly reduce Witten's floor and ceiling.

Then, there's Gallup. As a rookie, he received 68 targets from Prescott, 46 of which came in the second half of the season. In the final eight games, Gallup's 46 targets equate to 5.75 targets per game. Pushing that out an entire year would make him a 92-target receiver.

Of course, it goes without saying that prorating targets from season splits isn't the end-all be-all of predicting future production. Nonetheless, it is concerning. If Beasley returns and each of the aforementioned athletes earned 80% of their 135, 95, 83, and 92 targets, that would account for 62% of Prescott's career-high in attempts (526), not counting any targets going to Swaim, Jarwin, or even wideout Allen Hurns. If they exceed expectations, Witten will not be fantasy-viable in most formats.

More Passing Volume

The chart below displays Prescott's passing totals and the Cowboys' pass play percentages over the course of the quarterback's three-year career.

YearAttemptsPass YardsPassing TDsTeam Pass Percentage
201645936672351.30% (32nd)
201749033242252.24% (30th)
201852638852256.77% (23rd)

After passing a league-low 51.30% of the time, the Cowboys have steadily risen to the 23rd-ranked team in pass percentage. Prescott has seen his attempts increase by 6.3% in 2017 and 6.8% in his most recent campaign. He had a career high in both attempts and passing yards.

The best scenario for Witten would be if they continued to lift Prescott's pass attempts. If Prescott again sees a 6% jump in his attempts, it would put him in the 550-570 attempt area. Adding 30 targets or so in a pass offense would be beneficial to all pass-catchers on the team.

An Age-37 Season

Last, we cannot forget that Jason Witten will be 37 years old in 2019. Looking recently at another older tight end, Antonio Gates, does not spark much excitement. In his age-36 season, the future Hall of Famer totaled 93 targets for 53 receptions, 548 yards and 7 touchdowns. At age 37, that dropped to 52 targets for 30 receptions, 316 yards and 3 touchdowns. In his age-38 season, without Hunter Henry at his side, he still only garnered 45 targets for 28 receptions, 333 yards and 2 touchdowns. That was on the explosive Los Angeles Chargers, a team that was 11th in total yards, 10th in passing yards, and tied for 6th in total points.

Gates and Witten, while both were excellent in their careers, are much older players now. Witten just spent a year in the booth, away from a playing field. Until the season starts, there's no way to know if he can perform similarly to his age-35 form. And again, Witten's contract specifies around 25 snaps. According to sources, he won't become a "progress-stopper" for young guys. So his ceiling is capped in multiple ways.

Too Many Obstacles

Currently, FanDuel SportsBook's over/under on Witten's season yardage is 470.5. When talking touchdowns, he's +250 for 1 to 2, +150 for 3 to 4 and +150 for five or more. Those odds point to the three-plus territory, which speaks to what could be a key red zone role for the long-time vet.

However, while those props seem doable for Witten, it is unlikely that he will return to form. There are too many factors against him: age, snaps, and talent around him. In other words, don't draft him but don't be afraid to lay money on his touchdown total. While he might not be worth a roster spot on your team, he could at least fill your pockets a bit.