This is the fourth part in my series analyzing the Cowboys roster.
The Dallas Cowboys signed Jay Novacek in 1990 as a Plan B free agent from the St. Louis Cardinals. Novacek had spent his first five years with the Cardinals mostly as a backup, but he found immediate success in Dallas with Troy Aikman and the young, emerging Cowboys offense. Blessed with good size and sure hands, and more speed and quickness than most tight ends, Novacek became one of Aikman's favorite targets. A lasting memory for any Cowboys fan is Novacek running down the middle of the field hurdling would-be tacklers. That's where Novacek made his money, in the middle of the field. He made 5 Pro Bowl appearances in his 6 seasons with Dallas, and after Novacek's retirement the Cowboys spent the rest of Troy Aikman's playing days searching for a capable replacement, which they never found. Aikman wasn't the same quarterback without his friend and security blanket. The Cowboys have had some other very good tight ends over the years, like Billy Joe DuPree, Doug Cosbie and even Mike Ditka, but ask a Cowboys fan and he (or she) will almost always point to Novacek as the standard. I expect him to be in the Ring of Honor one day. (Novacek pictured, courtesy of The Dallas Morning News.)
Tony Romo has his Novacek in Jason Witten. As much as I became aggravated with many of the things Bill Parcells did in Dallas, I must admit he sure left some nice pieces of the puzzle, and none of them better than the 3rd round draft choice at tight end. Witten was a Parcells guy. Parcells pushed Witten hard his first few years in the league, pointing out his blocking deficiencies and urging him to become a complete tight end. Witten never complained, only worked harder and he's one of the best at his position in the league today. Strictly from a numbers standpoint, Witten already deserves consideration as the Cowboys best ever at the position, having caught 252 passes for 2,838 yards and 14 Td's and played in 3 Pro Bowls in his 4 seasons. He's only going to get better. Jason Garrett saw the effect Novacek had on both Aikman's career and the Cowboys offense, and he will try to utilize Witten in a similar way, controlling the middle of the field. When Terry Glenn and T.O. are gone from the Cowboys offense, Witten will still be there piling up catches and yardage and touchdowns and serving as Tony Romo's security blanket.
The Cowboys drafted Anthony Fasano in the 2nd round last year in an attempt to eliminate the fullback from the offense and move towards a two tight end scheme. It didn't last long. It was a wasted draft choice, a low priority need position that the Cowboys could have easily filled later in the draft or in free agency. But Fasano did play pretty well for a rookie in 2006. Like most young tight ends in the NFL, his blocking needs to get better but he has good hands and the instincts to find open areas in the passing game. Fasano isn't the vertical threat that Witten is, but he's a good reserve tight end. There has been some talk of moving him to fullback with the position now back in the plans, but I haven't seen the type of lead blocking from Fasano that Jason Garrett will require at that spot.
Tony Curtis was originally signed by the Cowboys in 2005 and spent that season on the practice squad. He also spent most of 2006 on the practice squad but did see action in four games. He has the size and measurables of a quality all around reserve NFL tight end but he remains a project. He has never been a receiving threat, catching a total of 7 passes his senior season at Portland State. He is playing with the Cologne Centurions in NFL Europe this summer and he has yet to catch a pass in 9 games. Curtis's upside with the Cowboys is a big, blocking tight end off the bench. Curtis will fight for a roster spot in training camp. He's out of practice squad time.
Rodney Hannah is a raw tight end prospect from the University of Houston with huge upside. Hannah played basketball at Houston before taking up football his senior year. He played wide receiver in high school. The University of Houston reported that Hannah had a 36" vertical leap. I've also seen reports that he runs 4.55 but nothing official on that time. Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez are former college basketball players that made the switch to tight end, and the Cowboys see Hannah as a big, athletic red zone target and potentially in the mold of those players, but it will take some time. The Cowboys list Hannah at 6-6, 256. He was 6-8 on Houston's basketball team!
The Cowboys signed Adam Bergen as a free agent this offseason. He was very productive at Lehigh and was considered one of the best tight ends in college football during his time there. He went undrafted in 2005 and signed with the Arizona Cardinals and made the team. He has caught 43 passes for 381 yards and 2 Td's for the Cardinals overall the past two seasons. He has good size (6-4, 267) and speed (4.78). Bergen is much further along than any of the other tight end prospects currently on the Cowboys roster and he's a good bet to make the team.
Andy Thorn went undrafted in 2005 and was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles and spent that season on the practice squad. The Eagles released him last season and he spent most of 2006 on the Dallas Cowboys practice squad. He has good size but lacks the bulk to be a stand out blocker, which the Cowboys would need out of a reserve tight end. He's unlikely to be around long since he is out of practice squad time and the Cowboys appear set at tight end.
Tony Romo and Jason Witten are friends off the field and productive together on the field, similar to a great Cowboys QB-TE combination of the recent past. Witten has a lot of good years ahead of him and he will undoubtedly go down as the best ever to play the position for the Cowboys. Anthony Fasano is capable of filling in as a starter and he will contribute again this year. Adam Bergen looks like a quality reserve. Rodney Hannah will likely be given at least a year to develop on the practice squad, if he doesn't make the team and if he isn't snatched away to another roster. The Cowboys have quality at the top and I don't even see depth as a concern at this position.