Critics of his performance in the Monday Night Football booth last season have reason to rejoice, as Jason Witten has ended his retirement and will return to the Dallas Cowboys to play tight end on a one-year deal.
Witten is fourth all-time in receptions with 1,152. But he’s not in line to catch No. 3 Larry Fitzgerald (1,303), who will be playing next season himself. From his second NFL season (2004) through his last in 2017, Witten was a starting caliber fantasy tight end (top-12) in all but one season and in that one (2016) he came in as TE14.
Witten was an every down player right to the end of his first stint with the Cowboys, playing 98.4 percent of the team’s offensive snaps in 2017 (65.5 snaps per game). But one caveat of his return is a snap limitation, with Clarence Hill of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporting the two sides have agreed to have Witten play around 25 snaps per game.
The easy comp for Witten in his return season is Antonio Gates. Gates returned to the Chargers at 38 years old last year, and Witten will turn 37 in May. Gates played 36.7 percent of the Chargers’ snaps in 2018 (22.9 per game). He finished with 28 receptions (on 45 targets) for 333 yards and two touchdowns.
Going deeper, h/t to Rotowire, Gates ran 245 routes on his 366 snaps last season. Of his 45 targets, 11 came in the red zone and both of his touchdowns came inside the 10-yard line. Gates finished last year as TE26 (Fantasy Pros).
Witten will primarily take some snaps away from Blake Jarwin (27 catches for 307 yards and three touchdowns last year), Geoff Swaim (26 catches for 242 yards and one touchdown in 2018) and Dalton Schultz (12 catches for 116 yards last season), with Rico Gathers (three catches for 45 yards in 2018) as a non-factor regardless.
Let’s say Witten plays 400 snaps next season, which is precisely 25 snaps per game and a viable projection based on a slight uptick from Gates‘ 2018. Projecting out the same percentage of routes run on his snaps, Witten would run 268 routes. Gates was targeted on 18.4 percent of his routes, but let’s bump that to 19 percent for Witten in 2019. So that’s 51 targets.
Witten’s catch rate in 2017 was 72.4 percent, but adjusting for a year out and age let’s put his 2019 catch rate at 70 percent. That gives him 36 receptions. Witten’s yards per catch average from 2015-2017 was 9.3, so let’s go a little lower and give him 330 receiving yards.
Witten have five or fewer touchdowns in six of seven seasons from 2011-2017, with more than six scores just three times in his previous 15 seasons. Red zone target volume as not generally an issue, but it’s worth noting his touchdown conversion rate dropped from 2015-2017. An injured Tony Romo gave way to Matt Cassel, Kellen Moore and Brandon Weeden for 12 games in 2015, and 2016-2017 had a first and second-year Dak Prescott under center.
Witten was a volume-based fantasy asset in his previous incarnation, and that volume will naturally go down in limited snaps. He will be fortunate to threaten a TE2 finish then, so he’s best left as waiver wire fodder when fantasy football draft time comes and it would take a major leap for him to even be a reliable streamer. Elsewhere in Dallas’ tight end mix, Jarwin can still be tentatively tabbed as a breakout candidate for 2019.
Jason Witten 2019 Projection: 36 receptions for 330 yards, 3 TD