Jason Witten is a great tight end, capable of doing just about anything the Dallas Cowboys would ask of him. However, to put him at the very top of the list of the greats would be stretching it. That's what former Cowboys tight end Jay Novacek tried to say in late April.
Novacek went beyond the easy thought about whether Witten is the greatest Cowboys tight end ever to crown him as the best ever at the position. Novacek said:
He's the best tight end that's ever played. He does so much and doesn't make many mistakes. ... You wrap that up with a talented and athletic body and you put it all together and that's what you create, one of the best tight ends ever to play the game.
Perhaps Novacek should have kept it to the last clause of his statement. To say that Witten is one of the best ever is easier to say. Witten is second among active tight ends in receptions (696) and receiving yards (7,909). He's also third all-time in receptions by a tight end and fourth all-time in receiving yards after just eight seasons.
Witten has had a nice amount of achievements. He was in the top 10 in receptions three times in four years (2007, 2009 and 2010). He made the Pro Bowl seven straight years from 2004 to 2010 and was named first-team All-Pro in 2007 and 2010.
If Novacek wanted to say that Witten is the best tight end in the game today, that would be accurate. Witten is a better all-around tight end than the rising stars featured in some of the edgier offenses. He's built better than Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Jimmy Graham, and he blocks better than them.
He also is a more polished receiver, less prone to dropping passes.
Now, as for the all-time argument, Witten doesn't quite stack up to Shannon Sharpe and Tony Gonzalez. Sharpe was a vertical threat before tight ends really became vertical threats. He averaged 12 yards per catch (something Witten has yet to achieve) nine times in the 13 seasons he had 20 or more catches.
Sharpe had 12 touchdown catches in his career of 30 yards or more, as well as a 96-yard touchdown catch in the 2001 AFC Conference Championship game.
Witten and Gonzalez each have only four.
Despite being three inches shorter than both Witten and Gonzalez, Sharpe had intimidating physique with a wide frame and a strapping musculature. Witten has good physique, but not like what Sharpe had.
As for Gonzalez, he is to the tight end position what Stevie Wonder is to music. He's effectively adapted to each step in the evolution of the position in his 15-year career, transcending time better than almost all skill position players in NFL history.
Gonzalez has consistently been productive. He has caught 70 or more passes in 12 of the last 13 years. He's had 90 catches five times and 900 yards receiving seven times. He hasn't had less than 620 yards receiving since his rookie year.
Witten hasn't put up quite the numbers Gonzalez has. He's had 70 catches six times and 900 yards receiving six times as well.
Making the argument that someone's the greatest ever is a tall task. Witten isn't that guy when it comes to tight ends. Perhaps Novacek was just saying it to pump up Cowboys fans because he's a former Cowboy who's proud of their history. Nonetheless, he should have hedged his opinion.