The following is the 2nd in a series of draft profiles for the Dallas Cowboys' selected players from April's draft. These profiles are put together after watching significant amounts of game tape from each player, and is an attempt to examine their resumes and play to get an idea of how they might fit in best with Dallas come training camp in Oxnard this summer.
San Diego State
40 time: 4.84, Bench Press: DNP
February 3, 1991 (22)
Sometimes, trying to fully understand the Cowboys' long-term plans can be quite difficult. This, of course, is partially due to the fact that their long-term plans have altered repeatedly over the years and if you are inconsistent in your goals, then it there will also be inconsistency in detecting those goals with observations from the outside.
For example, one long-term plan would be to replace your older players before they become incapable of performing. This requires two things, finding his replacement and also, not paying so much guaranteed money to old players that you cannot replace them. That is why many of us cringe with the annual off-season contract restructures of players over 30 years old on this roster. When you restructure, you are guaranteeing money in future seasons. And when you do that, you are adding to the dead money if that player ever runs out of ability.
So, on one hand, we could argue that the Cowboys are beginning to plan for the post-Jason Witten era when they drafted a tight end so high in the 2013 draft when they took Gavin Escobar from San Diego State at pick #47. But, on the other hand, with $9m guaranteed to Witten after 2013 - with cap hits annually of over $8m - they are still quite dependent on Witten giving them several more years of productivity despite already having 806 career receptions and very high mileage on his odometer.
Enter "12 Personnel". When I am done with these draft profiles, I want to dive deeper into the discussion about the Cowboys offensive history with "12 Personnel" and their determination to pair another weapon at the tight end position with Jason Witten going all the way back to 2006 when Anthony Fasano was taken in the 2nd round and then 2008 when Martellus Bennett was taken in the 2nd round, too. To allocate 3 2nd round picks in 8 drafts to the tight end position that already has an elite starter seems extremely foolish on the surface. That is, unless you can make it an unstoppable force for your offense that makes the league's defenses beg for mercy.
And that brings us to this tall pass catcher from San Diego State.
In watching film on many of his games this fall, it is rather clear that San Diego State's offense was built from the inside routes to the outside. In fact, you could easily argue that the Aztecs offense was the college equivalent of some past Cowboys' offenses where Romo to Witten was the constant refrain as the receivers were used as decoys and decorations rather than real threats. Think of this: SD State had exactly one man catch more than 24 passes in 2012, and that is the leggy and lanky Escobar with 42.
They went to him over and over again, with a number of hook/curl routes, some out-breaking short routes, and then fades to the corner and seam routes down the middle to use his superior height and jumping ability against defensive backs.
In a few instances for SD State, you could see the cat-and-mouse game between the offense and the opponent in the red zone. Offensively, they were determined to fit (force) the ball into a tight spot where Escobar could make a catch and the opponent would then double team him with bracket-coverage and not give him any space. No matter how many guys were covering him, it seemed that they were still going to him, and so we saw many chances for Escobar to demonstrate his well-advertised hands and aerial game.
His hands are good, bordering on very good. I do cringe a bit when hearing he has "great hands" because that would seem a bit disingenuous if you have watched his film. His technique is fine as he is not "body catching", but there were a few times where you wanted him to reel in a ball before you throw the label of "great" out there. The fact is that he was thrown the ball a ton, and although I cannot specifically say how many targets he had for his 42 catches, it was many. Some were dropped, but most were a case where the QB was flat-out determined that he is throwing to Escobar regardless of coverage. There was a mid-season QB change from senior-tranfer Ryan Katz, to young DFW-product Adam Dingwell, and it appeared that Dingwell had seen enough Romo to Witten to know that the easiest target to find is the one who is running the route 9 yards in front of your face.
Everyone is quick to point out a troubling 4.84 speed at the combine in the 40, so I was carefully looking at his routes and his ability to find space. Rest assured, this guy plays faster than he is timed. In fact, I might argue that he plays plenty faster than he is timed as he can find space and lose defensive backs in routes. He has a basketball background and understands that deception can knock your defender off his balance and that shake is what finds daylight in a proper pass-route. He has a very fine ability to attract coverage, so you do wonder how secondaries will deal with this many guys that need an extra defender to corral - especially in that red-zone.
What you really like about him is his formation versatility. He can be lined up just about anywhere, including flexed to the slot, alone wide by himself, or deployed as a primary tight end. He is a handful and often covered by corners or safeties. For instance, CB Desmond Trufant of Washington (now of the Falcons) was covering him quite a bit in their season opener against the Huskies.
Now, to that other aspect of his game that has caused many to fear the future, his blocking. There is no doubt that he will not make people forget Martellus Bennett's blocking, which was fantastic for much of his time here. He tries, but he certainly is not packing wallop on the run blocks when he is lined up next to the tackle. He is what they would call a "get in your way" blocker. And that is useful if properly deployed. They used him a lot like Andy Reid used Brent Celek over the years, which was with motion across the formation or at the snap the player heads behind the line to the opposite flank to get the contain man on the defense on what is called "cut-off" block. The difference is obviously that with a running start, he is able to generate much more force and can clean out a defender with much greater ease. And that is why I think we will see more situations where he is a blocker best suited for coming from the backside than staying strong and anchored from the frontside of a run.
Also, in the pursuit of run/pass balance, they also used another Reid favorite, which is the concept of leaving Escobar in to pass block, only to have him let his guy run free at the QB, setting up a dump pass to the tight end on what amounts to a TE screen pass and nothing but green grass ahead. We have seen Celek do that to DeMarcus Ware on several occasions, and the Aztecs enjoyed running that plenty.
As a pass blocker, he will need work, but I think with his size, he should be able to help. Again, the issues with the Cowboys in "12 personnel" in the past has been that they don't want to leave Witten in to pass block - and he has made it rather clear that he doesn't want to stay in. So, the other tight end is keyed on to be that pass blocker. With Bennett, he was great at that, but not great at receiving. With Escobar, he will be a very fine receiver, but will he be able to hold of Ryan Kerrigan? Better make sure he has some help.
Here is some video to look at, if you haven't already seen it:
Escobar #88 vs Boise State
Summary: Of all of their picks, this is the one that I have reservations about. And frankly, it has more to do with my optimism on James Hanna than it does about Escobar. If we are casting for a 2nd TE with the idea of running more "12" personnel, then I thought Hanna can provide that with blazing speed and potential as a receiver. Now, I assume he will have a role, but it won't be a big one.
But, if the idea was to be ready for that time nobody likes to think about - when Jason Witten is no longer an elite player - then, we should applaud the forward thinking. It is reasonable to say that Hanna could be a great 2nd TE, but never a #1. Escobar can be the #2 and grow into a very good #1 by 2015 when we assume Witten will not be what he is today. From that standpoint, I am fine with this, but it would have made much more sense if they would stop restructuring Witten's deal which insures he stays for financial reasons - even if his football reasons are not as convincing down the road.
The counter argument, of course, is that this team has much more pressing needs and Witten/Hanna could handle whatever you needed and then you find a blocking 3rd TE in the late part of the draft and use #47 on any number of quality defensive players left on the board - Bennie Logan, DJ Swearinger, or Jordan Hill - or more OL help - Larry Warford. And that would have been widely supported.
Instead, they are trying to fix red zone efficiency and the ability to be run/pass balanced as they come to the line of scrimmage. What that simply means is that they want the defense to be unsure of the plan, something that has gone away in 2011 and 2012. The Cowboys only real mode for moving the ball most weeks was shotgun with "11" personnel, which was one of the least balanced offenses in the arsenal (in 2012, the Cowboys run/pass ration in S11 was 9/91).
Now, they want uncertainty on the defense in the minds of opposing linebackers and safeties. With Escobar and Witten, they should be able to get there. They also should be able to utilize an offense with Dez Bryant and Miles Austin that can finally rise above #20 in red zone efficiency, a spot they have been stuck at in 2011 and 2012.
This all looks good on paper, but now, like when they spent pick #53 on Fasano from Notre Dame or #61 on Bennett from Texas AM, they must make pick #47 work. Which may tell us how long until the Cowboys are shopping for a new head coach.