I decided to dig up my 2003 NFL draft notes and review the scouting evaluations of Tennessee tight end Jason Witten.
Witten, of course, became a third-round draft pick of the Dallas Cowboys that year, the 69th overall selection and the fifth tight end. He went on to become one of the all-time great receiving tight ends in NFL history, retiring last week as the fourth-leading receiver of all time. The only tight end in history to catch more passes than Witten was Tony Gonzalez with 1,325. Witten was voted to six Pro Bowls in his 15-year career and twice was a first-team all-pro selection.
Turns out I was higher on Witten than the Cowboys and the NFL were. I had him as my No. 1 tight end and the 32nd player on my Top 100 draft board. The draft is all about the measurables and Witten certainly had those. At 6-5, 264 pounds with 4.67 speed in the 40, he was the prototype for his position.
But it wasn’t the position Witten expected to be playing as he headed into the 2003 NFL draft. He set his high school record for career tackles (450) as a linebacker and was recruited by the University of Tennessee to play defense. Witten lined up at defensive end as a freshman and started two games there before moving to tight end because of a shortage of bodies at the position.
“I miss defense," Witten told me at the 2003 NFL scouting combine, "but moving to tight end was the best thing for me. It allowed me to be in this position I am today. I’d probably have been an average defensive player. But I still have that mentality. I still play like a defensive player.”
Witten caught only one pass as a freshman but started three games at tight end as a sophomore and caught 28 more balls. After leading all SEC tight ends in both catches (39) and yards (493) as a junior, Witten elected to skip his senior season to turn pro. He believed he was ready for the NFL.
“I went through some tough times and had to block a little bit more than I wanted,” Witten told me at his combine, “but I realize that’s helped me a lot. They (NFL) are looking for the complete tight end. They love guys who can go down the field and make unbelievable catches. But you’ve got to block, too.”
But Witten was not without his critics and draft-day concerns. I talked to 13 NFL talent evaluators about Witten leading up to that draft – from coaches to general managers to personnel directors to scouts – and the opinions were mixed. Some believed he should have returned to school for his senior year, that just two seasons at the tight end position were not adequate training for what he’d face in the NFL. Others believed his route running needed some work.
“Not a special separation guy,” one personnel director told me. “Average hip explosion.”
“Not a polished blocker,” another told me. “Sometimes he gets rag-dolled by guys smaller than him.”
“He should be the most physical one of the (tight end) bunch,” a coach told me. “But I didn’t see the toughness and speed I heard so much about.”
On the flip side, one personnel director raved about his interview at the combine. Another called him a “safe pick.” Six teams told me Witten was the top tight end on their board and one told me he was a potential first rounder. Another team had him as the second tight end on their board, another rated him the fourth tight end and still another the fifth.
What talent evaluators did not identify in Witten was the desire and work ethic to become the best player he could be. Over the next 15 years in Dallas he became a model of consistency and productivity and, in fact, accomplished what he set out to do in 2003 – maximize his talents, both as a blocker and a receiver.
Witten set the NFL single-season record for receptions by a tight end with 110 in 2010. He set the NFL single-game record for receptions by a tight end with 18 against the New York Giants in 2012. He also became one of only three players in NFL history to catch at least 60 passes in 13 consecutive seasons, and set yet another record for consecutive games started by a tight end at 229 to close his career.
Witten leaves the Cowboys and the NFL now for the ESPN Monday night television booth with 1,152 career catches for 12,448 yards and 68 touchdowns. He posted four 1,000-yard seasons and collected 21 100-yard games. He also won the Walter Payton Award as the NFL Man of the Year in 2012.
Jason Witten became everything an NFL team could want as a player, as a person and as a team leader. Every team in the NFL missed on their talent evaluations of Witten and the Cowboys became the beneficiary. As it turns out, he was much better than the 69th overall choice of his draft. Much, much better.