Is Jason Witten Really a Future NFL Hall of Famer?
There are some things you just can't discuss casually. A friendly conversation with a co-worker or acquaintance is no place for your thoughts on the threat of terrorism and America's response. An informal planning meeting with your boss isn't the time to share your thoughts on the welfare system. And a first date probably isn't the right time to bring up your opinion about the best Kanye West single of all time. (By the way, the correct answer is POWER.)
If you're working in the NFL media business, you can add "calling a good player a future Hall of Famer" to the list. That's not a distinction to be made in passing, or as a pat on the back to a player you think is underrated. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are future Hall of Famers. The list of "sure things" after that duo of quarterbacks gets sketchy in a hurry.
Which is why I'm going to spend the rest of this article considering the "future Hall of Famer" status of Jason Witten, a tag he was given by the team of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman during this past weekend's Wild Card playoff game against the Lions. Is the steady-handed tight end really worthy of a bronze bust in Canton, Ohio?
The Evolving NFL
To answer that question, we first have to consider his place at the tight end position, which has changed drastically over the past few years. Much like Major League Baseball's Hall of Fame will downplay the importance of home runs from players who mashed during the steroid era, the NFL Hall of Fame will have to consider how much stock to put in counting statistics for skill position players who appeared during the post-2010 passing game explosion.
Because while there are 99 players listed as a "wide receiver" in Pro Football Reference's database who have 500 or more catches in their careers (and this doesn't include players listed as flankers, ends, split ends, or any of the other old-school terms for the outside players who catch passes), there have been only 10 players listed as a tight end to accomplish that feat.
And of those, six continued their careers until at least 2011, meaning they got at least some small share of the NFL's rise in passing production over the past five seasons. In fact, when comparing the lists of players with over 500 or more catches, only two of the 10 tight ends began their careers before 1990, while over 40 of the receivers began their careers in the '80s or earlier. One final note: there have been as many 500-plus reception receivers drafted since 2003 as there have been 500-plus reception tight ends in the history of the league.
By the time Witten is eligible for a spot in Canton, he'll be compared not only to the players who have gone before him, but also to the current crop of athletic monsters at the tight end position, who will almost certainly continue to put up monster numbers. So where does the Dallas tight end rank now, and is his status as a future Hall of Famer really that certain?
Is Consistency the Key?
When you consider the list of modern tight ends many consider to be among the best, it's pretty clear to see why Jason Witten would stand out as a Hall of Fame candidate, especially when using basic, counting statistics.
Witten falls short of only Tony Gonzalez in yards and receptions, and Gonzo and Antonio Gates in touchdowns, which is impressive company to keep at the tight end position. In fact, among all tight ends in league history, Witten is top five in receptions, yards, and touchdowns.
But consider the amount of games played for Witten, and the sheer number of receptions he's hauled in, and it's pretty easy to start to poke holes in his candidacy with per-game averages and measures of efficiency.
A look at numberFire's advanced Net Expected Points (NEP) metrics tell a similar story, as well as considering his per-game averages over his largely healthy career.
(Note: Tony Gonzalez's NEP data is from 2000 onward, and his per-game NEP and per-target NEP numbers have been adjusted accordingly.)
Witten stands tall in receptions per game, but when it comes to actual production, his numbers simply don't stack up. Over a similarly long career, Gates has produced more NEP than Witten by a wide margin, outclassing him by over 15% of an expected point per target. The new wave of star tight ends, Graham and Gronkowski, join Gates and Gonzalez north of the 5.00 NEP per game milestone, while Witten's per-game NEP production lags behind.
And when considering numberFire's Success Rate metric, which determines how often a player's reception results in positive NEP for his team, Witten's is on par with Alge Crumpler's, and is well behind the other players listed here. That may be the most damning statistic yet, as it reveals a smaller amount of his incredible reception count was meaningful for his team, and that there is some filler in an otherwise seemingly stellar stat line.
So, ultimately, it seems that the debate for Witten's Hall of Fame candidacy will boil down to how the committee views the tight end position, and how they value consistency.
Just for fun, here's a look at how the other active leaders at the tight end position would look if they kept up their career averages over the span of Witten's career, and caught the same amount of passes (943) as the Dallas tight end.
But the reality is that none of those players have as many catches as Witten, and therefore the chart above is nothing more than a fun exercise in multiplication. Witten has played in all 16 games every season since 2004 and has posted some of the most consistent reception and yardage numbers for a tight end in the history of the league. But is that Hall of Fame worthy?
Especially when it comes at a position like tight end, where production is historically much lower than it is at the receiver spots. Witten would rank 12th all-time in receptions among wide receivers, if he were one, but would find himself 34th in yards. Calvin Johnson, who has exactly 300 fewer receptions than Witten, only has 97 fewer receiving yards in a shorter career. That's a staggering difference for two players who will essentially be held to the same standards for the Hall.
Witten has never led the NFL in any statistical category and doesn't really stand out as the best player at his position in the league at any point in his career. He's always been overshadowed by Gonzalez, Gates, Graham and Gronkowski, and that will likely count against him in Hall of Fame voting.
I think of Witten as a less impressive version of Tim Brown when it comes to Hall of Fame candidacy. The long-time Raiders wideout only led the NFL in a statistical category once as a receiver (receptions in 1997), yet played a long, productive career that left him near the top of several key leaderboards for NFL pass-catchers. Yet he's been held out of the Hall on five straight votes despite being named a finalist on each occasion.
Both players share a similar career arc. They played well and produced solid numbers over long careers, but never dominated the league, and never stood out as a truly game-changing player. And if the way Brown is being treated by the selection committee is any indication, Witten will likely have a hard time making it to Canton with a career like the one he's had.