I’ve been strong in going against the crowd on Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten. I predicted Witten would regress in 2013—coming off a season in which he broke the record for most catches by a tight end (110)—and labeled him as one of the Cowboys’ most overrated players.
Some argued that a future Hall of Fame tight end can’t be overrated, but that idea disregards two things: one, that Witten isn’t playing at a Hall of Fame level anymore, and two, that the idea of being "overrated" necessitates a comparison of talent to public perception. I never said Witten is no longer a quality tight end—just that the perception of him (elite) doesn’t match reality.
If we were looking solely at bulk stats, we’d need to label Witten as an elite player. Even in a down year in 2013, Witten racked up 851 yards and eight touchdowns on 73 catches. There aren’t many tight ends around the league who are doing that.
What we need to concern ourselves with when assessing Witten’s value, however, is the opportunity cost of his targets. That is, when Witten receives a target from quarterback Tony Romo, the real value is what he does with it minus what a replacement receiver could have done—i.e. what opportunities do the Cowboys lose by targeting Witten so often?
In his heyday, Witten was arguably the Cowboys’ top target, and thus it wasn't possible to go to him "too often." That’s no longer the case, and we know that because Witten doesn’t produce elite efficiency with the looks he receives.
Yards Per Target
The first way that we can measure Witten’s efficiency is by looking at what he does with his targets. Here’s a look at the progression of his yards per target. I marked the NFL league average for tight ends with white dash marks.
You can see that Witten was continually around the league average (8.0) in efficiency prior to 2012. That’s not horrible, considering that he always saw more targets than most tight ends and as workload increases, efficiency naturally decreases.
The fact that Witten was around average in efficiency prior to 2012 shows he was an above-average tight end, but probably not as efficient as you might have expected. The truth is that Witten has always been a really good player, but one who’s really been aided by bulk attempts.
Would we have considered Witten a monster receiving tight end if he had played on an offense that didn’t focus on him so heavily? Doubtful.
Again, that’s pre-2012. Look at what happened two seasons ago. In the year in which Witten broke the record for receptions by a tight end, he also turned in a career low in yards per target. And the drop wasn’t a small one; it was magnificent.
In his “career year” of 2012, Witten produced more than one yard less per target than an average NFL tight end. Is it now easier to see why predicting him to disappoint in 2013 was so easy?
Witten’s yards per target improved in 2013 with fewer looks, but his average was still the second-worst and below-average for a tight end. It’s difficult to label a player who is below-average in efficiency as "elite," especially when they receive the fewest targets they’ve gotten in seven seasons.
Yards Per Target on Deep Passes
This stat is naturally going to be more volatile than some others because Witten doesn’t see a huge number of deep passes (20-plus yards) each season, but it’s still interesting to note that his worst season in terms of downfield efficiency came in 2012.
And again, we see a player who has been below-average for just a normal NFL tight end in the past two seasons.
Yards Per Route
Of all stats to analyze for receivers, my favorite is yards per route. That’s because it penalizes for not getting open (and thus failing to receive a target).
It’s also good for tight ends because it doesn’t penalize them when they stay in to block. One of the oft-overlooked aspects of Witten’s game is that he doesn’t stay in to block on very many passes.
Last year, he stayed in to block 13.6 percent of the time, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), which ranked 28th of 35 qualifying tight ends. When the Cowboys pass, Witten is almost always an option for Romo, which will naturally inflate his stats. Yards per route adjusts for that.
Plus, yards per route does a better job than yards per target of displaying Witten’s value.
Even though Witten’s yards per route has declined every year since 2008, he was still well above the league average up until 2013. Part of that is due to receiving a high percentage of the Cowboys’ targets—again, the bulk opportunities obviously help—but Witten was also producing at a higher level a few years ago.
The fact that Witten’s yards per route declined in 2012, when he saw an unfathomable 150 targets, is a really strong sign that his play has been regressing. To produce just above league-average efficiency on a per-route basis despite seeing a target on 23.8 percent of his routes (a high rate) is a good indicator that Witten wasn’t actually playing at a level that his raw totals suggested.
The go-to rebuttal for Witten apologists is “but he’s an elite blocker, too.” That’s probably the case because it’s difficult to quantify blocking ability, and thus difficult to refute. Those who use Witten’s blocking to claim he’s still an elite tight end will tell you to “just turn on the tape.”
Well, Pro Football Focus does turn on the tape, but unlike traditional scouts, it quantifies what it sees. We can use its numbers on tight end blocking efficiency, at least in pass protection, to determine Witten’s value as a pass-blocker.
Here’s a look at Witten’s pass-blocking efficiency since 2007 versus the average NFL tight end.
Witten has adequately blocked his man on 95.1 percent of pass snaps. That’s better than the league average, although the effect perhaps isn’t as great as it appears; the average NFL tight end has pass-blocking efficiency just one percentage point lower at 94.1 percent.
That means we can expect Witten to allow one less pressure on Romo for every 100 pass snaps that he stays in to block as compared to a typical tight end.
But remember, Witten doesn’t remain in to block all that much—an average of just over 61 snaps per year over the past eight seasons. That’s it. So on average, Witten has “saved” 0.61 quarterback pressures per season for Dallas.
Now, can he really overcome a precipitous drop in receiving efficiency to remain an “elite” tight end because of 0.61 pressures per year?
Witten is a good tight end. He’s a great guy, a hard worker, and the type of player you want on your team.
He’s not an elite tight end.
If you’re going to continue to label the future Hall of Famer in that way, you need to somehow show that, despite being below-average in yards per target and yards per route in 2013, Witten still somehow offers enough value to overcome his lackluster efficiency. Presumably, those traits will need to be unquantifiable, like “he plays with such heart” or “he’s a good leader.”
OK, Witten is a good leader. He’s a good leader who produces like an average NFL tight end and is by no means an elite option for the Cowboys anymore.