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FRISCO, Texas — As Jason Witten gets ready for what will be a franchise-record 16th season with the Dallas Cowboys, he knows this might be the year the team drafts his successor with an early-round pick.

“They’ve got to find the best roster that they can do,” Witten said last week at the inaugural Jason Witten College Man of the Year Award dinner. “It would be foolish to get sensitive and worry about that. You’ve got to be able to compete and play at a high level. I welcome that and certainly I would help that guy in any way and I think the most important thing is let’s make our football team better. I know Stephen and Jerry [Jones] and Will [McClay] and coach [Jason] Garrett, they’re doing everything they can to put us in position in free agency and the draft to do that. Tight end position may be one of those spots.”

The Cowboys have drafted three tight ends in the second round over the past 12 years: Anthony Fasano (2006), Martellus Bennett (2008) and Gavin Escobar (2012).

Their plan with those selections was to pair the pick with Witten as part of a strong two-tight-end set that could be dominant with the run, especially with Bennett, and versatile with the pass, especially with Escobar. The latter was selected in part because the Cowboys were going to emulate what the New England Patriots did with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

It never worked out. Fasano was traded after the 2007 season. Bennett caught four touchdown passes, all as a rookie, and left in free agency. Escobar, who also left as a free agent, never had more than nine catches in a season.

Witten has finished first or second on the team in receptions the past 11 seasons, including 2017 when he caught 63 passes for 560 yards and five touchdowns. In the past five seasons, he has not played fewer than 96 percent of the snaps, including 98 percent in 2017.

After managing his practice work the past few seasons, there have been whispers this offseason of cutting back on Witten’s snaps in order to theoretically make him better late in games or late in the season.

To do so, the Cowboys need to have a tight end to do what Witten does in the running and passing games. James Hanna and Geoff Swaim have worked into smaller roles in the offense. The Cowboys like the potential of Blake Jarwin. Rico Gathers is a fan favorite based on two preseasons.

Can any of them handle a bigger role? Would a potential early draft pick?

Last season, Garrett, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and quarterback Dak Prescott said Witten, who turns 36 in May, showed no signs of slowing down. Witten would not be coming back for another season if he did not think he could play at a high level and already has begun the process of getting ready for 2018.

“There’s no other way. I’ve got to improve,” Witten said. “Another year older, you know, that’s another 1,000 snaps underneath that I have behind me. So I’ll do it again and I think it’ll be important for me to perform at a high level. It’s a bottom line, right? Does the pitch count kick in? My job is to be able to perform for three hours or three and a half hours every Sunday and I’ve got to work my tail off to get to the point where I can do it, and that’s what motivates me.”

The ultimate motivation is a Super Bowl. Already the franchise leader in receptions and receiving yards and second to Tony Gonzalez among tight ends in NFL history, Witten does not need more catches or yards to build a Hall of Fame resume.

He is playing because he believes he can play a major role in winning a championship.

He said if the Cowboys draft another tight end it would not serve as “fuel,” to dispel the notion he can no longer do it. He is at a different place in his career than when the Cowboys selected Fasano, Bennett and Escobar.

“I feel like if you don’t have [the desire to win a title] you don’t need to be playing,” Witten said. “If you’ve got to convince yourself of that or, ‘Hey, can I amp up for one more?’ That’s already a sign [to call it quits]. And that’s never been the case with me to this point. I’ve never had that feeling. I’m sure I will at some point because it is demanding. It’s taxing.

“But it goes hand in hand. It’s both mental and physical. Maybe what you lose physically you gain mentally in your education, knowledge, how you study and see it and how quickly you see it and break it down. That’s an advantage for sure being able to be smart and make quick decisions. But you are, you’re fighting off Father Time and you’ve got to work your ass off to do it. Certainly I’ve tried to do that over the course of the last few years.”

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TE Josh Hill retires from football less than 2 months after signing with Detroit Lions

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METAIRIE, La. — Tight end Josh Hill officially announced his retirement Thursday, less than two months after joining the Detroit Lions as a free agent.

The Lions signed veteran tight end Darren Fells as a replacement.

Hill, who turns 31 later this month, spent his first eight years with the New Orleans Saints before being released in a wave of salary-cap cuts. He initially planned to follow his former position coach, Dan Campbell, to Detroit before the apparent change of heart.

Hill’s one-year deal with the Lions was scheduled to pay him $1.2 million.

“This game has blessed my family and I with more than we could have ever imagined,” Hill wrote in an Instagram post. “Everything this game has given and taught me makes this decision extremely difficult, but I am looking forward to all of the years I have with my young family, and being able to chase after different dreams.”

Hill joined the Saints as an undrafted rookie from Idaho State in 2013 and quickly earned a place as a versatile blocker, receiver, core special teams player and occasional fullback. The 6-foot-5, 250-pounder finished his career with 116 catches for 1,071 yards and 15 touchdowns in the regular season, plus another 15 catches for 166 yards and a TD in the playoffs.

Saints coach Sean Payton once described Hill as so valuable in so many different areas of the playbook that losing him to an injury early in a game was “like losing your front door.”

“He has been a model of consistency throughout his eight seasons with us,” Payton said in a statement when Hill was released. “He has been reliable, selfless and filled numerous roles for us, oftentimes on the fly and in the middle of games, filling each role at a very high level.”



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Players Association fires back at NFL’s voluntary offseason workout policy following Ja’Wuan James’ injury

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The Denver Broncos and tackle Ja’Wuan James have become the focal points in the growing acrimony between the NFL and the NFL Players Association over attendance of players at voluntary offseason workouts.

That relationship grew even more strained on Thursday when the players’ union fired back to its membership in response to a memo from the NFL’s management council to team executives and head coaches earlier this week.

In a wide-ranging email to players, which was read to ESPN, union officials devoted a section to the season-ending Achilles tendon injury James had suffered earlier this week while working out away from the Broncos’ complex.

In the email, union officials said:

“It was gutless to use a player’s serious injury as a scare tactic to get you to come running back to these workouts.

“This memo is another sign of what they think of you and also affirms that they simply want to control you year-round in any and every way that they can.

“We have been in touch with Ja’Wuan James. Despite an open threat of an ‘NFI’ designation, Ja’Wuan was working out to stay in shape under a program recommended to him by his coach.”

James had been specifically named in the league’s memo Tuesday. In that memo, it was outlined under the “Non-Football Injuries” designation that teams like the Broncos would have “no contractual obligation” to pay players like James their salaries if they were injured away from the team facilities.

The memo also outlined why a player’s salary would be paid if the injury had been suffered during a workout at a team’s complex. The memo also mentioned: “Clubs are encouraged to remind players of the significant injury-related protection provided if they choose to work out at the club facility and the risks they undertake in choosing to train at a non-NFL location.”

James has a $10 million salary guarantee for the 2021 season the Broncos would not have to pay, according to the collective bargaining agreement, because he suffered the injury at another site. The union also pointed out in its email Thursday while the NFI designation has been part of the CBA for some time, the league has “never, ever sent such a memo about voluntary workouts.”

The Broncos players were among the first earlier this offseason to issue a statement through the NFLPA that they would boycott the team’s voluntary offseason program. Several players, more than 20 at times, have still worked out at the team’s facility in recent weeks, including several who are returning from injuries.

Broncos coaches have routinely given players specific workout protocols to follow during the offseason, if the players wishes to, if the players are working out away from the facility. James, who opted out of the 2020 season due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic, had also been in the team’s facility at times this offseason.

Days before the draft Broncos general manager George Paton was asked about James’ progress and said: “He’s been here, and he’s been working out. He looks great and the expectation is he starts at right tackle and he plays well.”

James has played 63 snaps over three games combined – all in 2019 – since he signed a four-year, $51 million deal with the Broncos in March of that year. During the 2019 season James suffered a torn meniscus as well as a torn MCL in separate games that season.

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Detroit Lions release former second-round running back Kerryon Johnson

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The Detroit Lions have released running back Kerryon Johnson, the team announced on Thursday.

Detroit drafted the former Auburn standout in the second round in 2018. Johnson became expendable after the team drafted D’Andre Swift No. 35 overall in 2020, signed free-agent running back Jamaal Williams in March and drafted Oregon State’s Jermar Jefferson last week.

Johnson ran for 1,225 yards and eight touchdowns over three seasons. He also has 61 career receptions for 527 yards and three scores.

Last year, he had 181 yards rushing and two scores on 52 carries, and had 19 receptions for 187 yards receiving and a touchdown.

The Lions also added a player in free agency, signing tight end Darren Fells on Wednesday. The move gives the team a veteran at the position it can put on the field with Pro Bowl tight end T.J. Hockenson.

The 35-year-old Fells has 123 career catches with 1,483 yards receiving and 21 touchdowns. The previous two years in Houston, he had a combined 55 catches for 653 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Fells has started 76 games — including 13 with the Lions in 2017 — and played in 102 games with Arizona, Detroit, Cleveland and the Texans. He was a rebounding standout at UC Irvine and played basketball in Argentina, Mexico, Belgium, Finland and France before playing in the NFL.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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