Does the Rise of Gavin Escobar Mean the End of Jason Witten for Fantasy Football?
Say whatever you want about Jerry Jones and his ability to put together a football team, but the on-field product from the 2014 Dallas Cowboys has been undeniably good this season. The team is playing at a high level against tough competition and seems to be deeper and more talented than it has been in years past.
So when Jones says (to Jim Corbett of USA Today) of a player's catching ability "...that's the best hands that we've got, some of the best hands I've ever seen," it's probably wise to listen. After all, he's put together the team that currently sits atop the NFL, so he deserves a bit of respect when evaluating the talent of one of his players.
So who was he talking about when he praised a player for having some of the best hands he had seen in his very, very long football career? (If you clicked on the link above, you already know. Cheater.) You may guess Dez Bryant, he of leaping catches in traffic, or Terrance Williams, the red zone threat for this year's team. You would be wrong. You may also think of reliable Jason Witten, who has been catching seemingly everything thrown his way for the better part of a decade. But it's none of those players.
Jones was talking about second-year tight end Gavin Escobar, who was lost in the shuffle of his transition to the NFL from San Diego State last year and didn't feature heavily in the Dallas offense. This year, Escobar is getting the hang of the NFL, and that's allowing him to put his ridiculous talent on display.
The towering tight end has burst onto the scene in recent weeks, hauling in multiple touchdown catches in the Cowboys' last two games and earning the praise of his teammates, coach, and general manager/owner. So what does the future hold for Escobar, and what does it mean for Jason Witten?
Raising the Esco-bar
Jerry Jones' assessment of Escobar matches mine from his days as a draft prospect out of the oft-ignored Mountain West program, SDSU. Escobar wasn't a terrific athlete, but his hands, body control, and ability to get open were second-to-none among tight ends in that class. He effortlessly caught everything thrown his way and showed fantastic fundamentals when catching the ball.
And while his transition to the NFL wasn't immediate, he's now putting those traits on display on the big stage, and he could be slowly taking over the top tight end job in Dallas in the process.
Over the last two weeks, Escobar has five targets, while Witten has seven over that same span. And on the season, Escobar has been targeted 4 times in the red zone (he has only 9 total targets), while Witten has seen only 3 of his 35 targets come inside the 20.
The Cowboys have begun to get more snaps for their backup tight end, as well, as Escobar and fellow reserve tight end James Hanna James Hanna saw a season-high in snaps this past week, according to Blogging the Boys. This coincides with an increase in targets, and may also mean the end of Jason Witten's relevance.
Riding Off Into the Sunset
Jason Witten has been one of the most consistent tight ends in the NFL over the past decade, and this season is no different. He's actually on pace to have his best per-target efficiency (according to our Net Expected Points data) of his career, but it will come on his lowest catch and target totals since 2006.
|Year||Receptions||Rec NEP||Targets||Rec NEP/Target|
Seeing better efficiency on fewer targets isn't a surprise, as a high-volume receiver often sees his per-target average suffer as a result of his heavy usage (which becomes obvious to opposing defenses and often means a quarterback is forcing the ball to the receiver). But combine this decline in volume with a lack of red zone relevance and the rise of a young prospect, and we could be witnessing the beginning of the end for one of the best tight ends in recent history.
For fantasy football purposes, Witten is one more week of Escobar's dominating the red zone looks from being droppable in nearly every shallow-league format, with the lone exception of TE Premium PPR leagues which give extra bonuses per catch for tight ends. Witten will continue to catch a handful of passes per game but is otherwise not a threat to score on a regular basis and may be phased out of the red zone almost entirely as a result of Escobar's arrival.
And with how productive the Dallas offense has been this season, Escobar would be a solid bye-week fill-in at tight end (or a starter in a deeper league) if he continues to see looks and snaps near the end zone. He has the size and hands to have a Joseph Fauria-like touchdown number this season, even if he doesn't jump quite as high as the Lions' tight end.