Raiders' Mike Mayock explains decision to sign Jason Witten, but final stint with Cowboys casts some doubt
The fit for Witten in Las Vegas remains questionable — outside of the obvious
Death, taxes and Jason Witten being a first-ballot Hall of Famer when he retires (for good) are three things you can stake your life on happening. There can be no debate on what Witten has meant to the Dallas Cowboys and the NFL since being selected with the 69th-overall pick in 2003, going on to land 11 Pro Bowl nods, four All-Pro honors as well as being named Walter Payton Man of the Year (2012) and garnering the Bart Starr Award (2013). For the first time in his illustrious career, however, he'll slide on the uniform of a different team, having signed a one-year deal with the Las Vegas Raiders in 2020.
That said, things didn't exactly look as pristine for the former Cowboys ironman — who also holds a franchise record with 227 consecutive starts — in his return to the field in 2019. Witten descended from the broadcasting booth to help shore up Dallas' tight end corps only one season after having surprised the club with his abrupt decision to retire, and it became clear over the course of the season he had lost a step or two.
Still, the Raiders saw enough to warrant maxing out his one-year contract at a robust $4 million, including guaranteeing $3.5 million of it. In a recent conversation with the media via conference call, general manager Mike Mayock explained why he chose to give Witten a chance when the Cowboys themselves opted not to.
"Here's the way I look at it, and I think Jon [Gruden] and I looked at it the same way: If there's a Mt. Rushmore of NFL tight ends, he's on it," Mayock said, via Pro Football Talk. "I know he's 37 years old, and I know we have a pretty good tight end room, but when you talk about bringing in a guy like him, not only can he still play — he had over 60 catches but blocked the backside — he's still a competitive football player. But on top of that, he brings this wealth of knowledge about how to be a professional."
Mayock hits the nail flush on the head when describing Witten's professionalism and leadership — two things that are paramount in being successful at the NFL level.
Where things take a darker turn is when attempting to assess what Witten still has left in the tank, considering a list of his 63 receptions in 2019 felt more forced than earned, and often at the expense of a more dynamic and capable Blake Jarwin. For perspective, Witten reeled in 63 receptions in both of his last two seasons on the field, but he produced 31 fewer receiving yards and one fewer touchdown in 2019 than in 2017. Additionally, he had only six more catches in 2016, but he delivered 144 more overall yards that year.
In his last four seasons with the Cowboys, his production cascaded from 713 yards in 2015 to 673 yards the following year, and he followed up with a 560-yard campaign in 2017 — capped by the second-lowest mark of his career (529) just last season. His 8.4 yards per catch in 2019 was a career-low and he also had uncharacteristic and untimely drops after perennially being one of the most sure-handed targets on the field.
This, along with the production of a more athletic Jarwin — when given the chance — led to newly-hired Mike McCarthy opting to finally sever the romance between Witten and the Cowboys and instead name Jarwin starter and have the team award the 25-year-old a multi-year deal and then signing Super Bowl-winning tight end Blake Bell as his complement. While none of this is to suggest Witten can no longer play football, it is a glaring whiteboard of intel that strongly hints at a clear and rather sharp decline. And given how many bodies exist on the Raiders depth chart at tight end, it remains unclear exactly where Witten fits in the rotation.
Mayock has some ideas, though.
"You guys got tired of me talking about foundation players last year and the locker room and culture, and that's what this guy is," he said of Witten. "He's the quintessential culture guy. And we plug him in our locker room, and we've got one more veteran that can look around the room and tell people, with all that experience, what to do and what not to do. Tell people what to do and what not to do."
That's a more than fair assessment of what Witten can do for a team's culture, but there has to be more, and Mayock knows it.
"More importantly — the tight end room — you get a guy like Foster [Moreau] coming off the ACL, hopefully he's going to be 100 percent Day One, but if he's not, we've got a conventional Y that can play," Mayock noted. "Plus, we've got a guy in that tight end room that I think is going to help the young guys, and I'm talking about all of them. … We just thought it was too good of an opportunity both for our locker room and for our tight end room, and by the way, the guy can still play a little bit."
That he can, but to what extent — is the question.
Darren Waller was a frontrunner for NFL Comeback Player of the Year in 2019, inhaling 1,145 receiving yards and leading the team by a mile in that category. As such, he's the definitive starting tight end in Las Vegas, which means Witten is second fiddle at best, and possibly third if Moreau is 100 percent and ready to make an impact, Mayock also made it clear the Raiders are looking to upgrade their situation at wide receiver in a major way as the 2020 NFL Draft approaches, and with more targets to wide receivers inevitably comes fewer looks at tight ends, but Waller will get his and that's a fact.
So if the wideouts are thrown at more in 2020, Waller continues to eat, and Moreau grabs a plate as well, what type of snap count can Witten truly expect in Nevada? It's senseless to discount what he brings mentally and from the standpoint of a culture change, but Witten's logistical value to the Raiders — barring injury at the position — is less impressive on the field than it is in the locker room, and raises an eyebrow or two when considering $3.5 million in guaranteed money for one season.
The reality is his ability to consistently impact games is questionable, even if his intangibles remain priceless.
The 37-year-old wanted nothing more than to finish his career (for a second time) with the Cowboys, but it was not to be, as they move on from one of the best to ever wear the Star. As Witten unpacks in Vegas, he's hoping Father Time has trouble finding his new address, and the Raiders are placing the same bet.