Posted by Chase Stuart on July 14, 2009
Does that title strike you as odd? Jason Witten, at least at first glance, doesn't strike me as a HOF player. In 2007, he was named a first-team All-Pro by the Associated Press, and last season he was named to its second-team. But his lack of awards to date has more to do with the dominance of Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates than the productivity of Jason Witten. But putting aside the questions of 1) exactly how good Witten has been, 2) whether or not he should make the Hall of Fame one day, or 3) whether or not he's a HOFer right now, by the time he retires it looks like he'll wind up in the Hall of Fame. And that comes as a surprise to me.
While I'm nowhere near an expert on these matters, it seems as though the TE position was officially created, at least in name, once the T-Formation died out at the end of the '50s. Before 1960, receivers (or ends) were hybrid wide receivers/tight ends, joined in the lineup by three running backs. As teams moved towards a two-RB system, offenses moved the two ends farther out -- and were classifed as wide receivers and not ends -- and a new position, the tight end, would line up next to one of the tackles. Maybe some commenters will further explain the evolution of the position, but this is my quick way of saying that statistics for tight ends begin in 1960. Before that season, no one was labeled a tight end, which is background information for the next few paragraphs.
Jason Witten entered the NFL at age 21. That's very young for a player at any position, let alone tight end. So how has he done?
- Through age 21, he had more receptions than any other tight end through age 21, and was second in receiving yards (Tony Gonzalez).
- Through age 22, he had more receptions and receiving yards than any other tight end.
- Through age 23, he had more receptions and receiving yards than any other tight end.
- Through age 24, he was second in receptions (Tony Gonzalez) and second in receiving yards (Gonzalez) among tight ends.
- Through age 25, he had more receptions and receiving yards than any other tight end.
- Through age 26 (the 2008 season), he had more receptions and receiving yards than any other tight end.
- With 40 receptions and 472 receiving yards in 2009, he will have more receptions and more receiving yards than any other tight end through the age of twenty-seven.
Jason Witten, at 26 years old, was one of the three best tight ends in the league last year, and he is showing absolutely no signs of slowing down. With Terrell Owens in Buffalo, Witten could see his numbers soar in '08. Footballguys.com projects Witten for another 900+ yards this season. Over the next three seasons, Witten needs just 1346 receiving yards to rank 2nd in receiving yards by a tight end through age 29. To catch Gonzalez, he'd need to average 959 receiving yards over the next three seasons, a high number due to the enormous year Gonzalez had at age 28. And while that number is reachable, Gonzalez is arguably the greatest tight end of all time; Witten can fall a bit short of Gonzalez and still be a shoe-in to Canton.
Witten may not "feel" like a Hall of Famer; he's been in the shadow of Jerry Jones, Bill Parcells, Tony Romo and Terrell Owens, and to some extent Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates. And when he's up for induction, people will rightly argue that his numbers were inflated by his era. So let's move past his raw statistics.
He has already made five Pro Bowls in his career. Only Jim Brown, Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders had made five Pro Bowls at an earlier age (all at age 25); two are in the HOF and one will be next year. In addition to Witten, seventeen other players have made five Pro Bowls by age 26. Eight are already in Canton; five more (Randy Moss, Champ Bailey, Junior Seau, Ray Lewis and Michael Strahan) will almost certainly be there five or six years after they retire. Of the other four, three played in small leagues in the pre-merger era (Jon Arnett ('57-'61), Earl Faison (AFL) and Jon Morris (AFL)), where it was, presumably, a bit easier to stand out. The fourth was John Offerdahl, a terrific linebacker for the Dolphins in the late '80s (and local hero) whose career was cut short by injuries.
Forty-seven players made five Pro Bowls by 27, a year after Witten. Twenty-three are already in the HOF and several more will make it there eventually. Of the players who started making the first of their five Pro Bowls by ages 25, 26 or 27 after the switch to the sixteen-game schedule, about two-thirds are either in Canton or will be there one day. Once again, I'm not discussing whether or not Jason Witten should make the HOF one day; such a discussion would involve a full consideration of his blocking ability. All I'm saying is that barring injury, it sure seems likely that Witten will make the Hall of Fame one day.
With Gonzalez now in the NFC, making the Pro Bowl might get a little harder for Witten. But he's still likely to make multiple Pro Bowls before he retires, and has a good chance to best the records Shannon Sharpe set for tight ends in receptions and receiving yards (that Gonzalez broke) before Witten hangs up his cleats. The only way, barring injury, that he doesn't end up with a strong HOF case is if multiple guys in the John Carslon, Dustin Keller, Shawn Nelson, Jared Cook, Chase Coffman, Cornelius Ingram and Jermichael Finley mold revolutionize the tight end position and consistently churn out 800+ yard seasons.