With very little pressure at the outset of his NFL career, Dallas Cowboys rookie tight end James Hanna has performed quite well thus far in his first training camp and preseason. The sixth-round pick out of Oklahoma has caught nearly everything thrown his way and has exceeded expectations as a blocker.
But now it looks as though the pressure will be cranked up, because for the first time in nearly a decade the Cowboys could be forced to play regular season football without five-time All-Pro tight end Jason Witten.
A source tells ProFootballTalk.com that Witten suffered a spleen injury Monday night in Oakland, which will reportedly cause him to miss the rest of the preseason and puts his status for Week 1 in doubt.
Witten, who hasn't missed a game since he was a rookie in 2003, is one of the most irreplaceable players in football. The Cowboys already enter 2012 with depth concerns at the wide receiver position, and now Tony Romo has lost his ultimate safety valve—his totem, if you will.
No one on the roster and few players in the league have the ability to replace Witten single-handedly. The guy's a throwback bruiser who's had at least 79 catches and 900 yards in each of the last five seasons. He's a model of consistency and reliability in an inconsistent and unreliable field.
So, aside from hoping and praying, what do the Cowboys do now? Martellus Bennett was Witten's backup the last four years, but he left as a free agent in the offseason. John Phillips is the new No. 2, but he's never had more than 40 yards receiving in a game, missed all of 2010 with a torn ACL and is currently nursing an ankle injury.
That brings us to Hanna, who was supposed to be eased in. While Phillips is known as a strong blocker who has to emerge as a receiver, Hanna is a strong receiver who has to improve his blocking.
With Witten out indefinitely and Phillips coming back slowly from that sprained ankle, the 23-year-old Hanna will have plenty of opportunities to work on his blocks, as well as his overall game. Still, he has a long way to go. Combined, Phillips and Hanna might be as good as Witten, but the NFL isn't likely to bend the rules and allow Dallas to pair them together and count them as one.
It's also possible Jerry Jones and Co. decide to invest in a free agent. But the only notable tight end on the market is 32-year-old Jeremy Shockey. Don't expect Dallas to roll the dice there unless Witten undergoes surgery (an avenue that hasn't been ruled out, per PFT) and is forced to miss an extended period of time.
Who has a better chance to succeed in place of Jason Witten?
Instead, the Cowboys will likely sign a camp body on the cheap and cross their fingers that either Witten's spleen cooperates or Phillips and/or Hanna can emerge.
Witten truly is a unique player, and he's always been resilient, but spleen issues are no joke. It can't be understated how crucial his presence is to the Cowboys offense. It's the bracket coverage that he constantly attracts that frees up Miles Austin and Dez Bryant—and Laurent Robinson last year—to do their thing.
Those guys come and go and get hurt and get healthy again in quasi-cyclical fashion (both Austin and Bryant have already been injured this month). But for nine years running, Witten has been Dallas' most steady offensive presence.