Witten retirement leaves Cowboys with unproven replacements

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FRISCO, Texas (AP) — When Geoff Swaim glances around the film room at his fellow tight ends with the Dallas Cowboys, he doesn't see Jason Witten anymore.

As for what's showing on the screen, Swaim can't help but see familiar No. 82 because the franchise leader in games was on the field nearly every snap for 15 years before his sudden retirement to go into broadcasting last month.

"Well, it's hard to watch film and not have Witt in the film. You know what I mean?" Swaim said with a chuckle Wednesday after the final voluntary offseason practice before mandatory minicamp next week.

"I don't know what tape you can bring up of the Cowboys in any sort of relevant way that Witt's not on the field. It's always him. It's always him. It's always him. And it's that way for a reason."

Swaim is the team's oldest tight end at 24 with nine regular-season catches and 94 yards to show for his first three years in the league. That's nine catches and 94 yards more than any of the other four — and 1,143 catches and 12,354 yards fewer than Witten, the club leader in both.

The next-oldest tight end? Rico Gathers, the former Baylor basketball standout who hadn't played football in nearly a decade when the Cowboys drafted him two years ago. He's 24, but four months younger than Swaim.

Next is Blake Jarwin, a second-year player who got in one game last season after the Cowboys activated him from the practice squad. Rookie Dalton Schultz, a fourth-round pick in April, was 6 when the Cowboys drafted Witten in 2003. The fifth tight end is undrafted rookie David Wells.

"Everybody has to start a game at some point in time, or play a first play at some point in time," new tight ends coach Doug Nussmeier said. "I don't look at it as a negative."

The Cowboys had some experience besides Witten after last season, but James Hanna beat the 11-time Pro Bowl player to retirement by a couple of weeks. The 28-year-old Hanna had persistent knee issues.

The player most likely to do a double take was Swaim, a seventh-round pick out of Texas in 2015. In a matter of days, he went from understudy still building his resume to the only Dallas tight end with one.

"It was sort of overnight," Swaim said. "But again you have to adjust and move on. That's how everyone approached it, 'Wow, OK, here's what's in front of us now.' It doesn't do me any good to look in the past. It doesn't do me any good to go, 'What's going on?'"

Gathers missed all of last season with a concussion after an impressive preseason that raised hopes about his development. It was a significant setback for someone with little football background who chose the NFL over the NBA because he thought it was his best shot at a pro career.

Now, though, Witten's retirement has left the position wide open for the 6-foot-8, 285-pound Gathers, who hasn't played in the regular season yet.

"There's really no major opportunity to really do anything of growth from as far as expecting to play, expecting to take snaps from him because he's not supposed to let that happen," Gather said. "It opens up windows for everybody to be able to come in and prove themselves."

Schultz, who played at Stanford, saw reports of Witten drawing interest from the networks the way longtime friend and teammate Tony Romo did a year earlier when the former Cowboys quarterback decided to retire rather than play for another team after losing his job to Dak Prescott.

It's only natural for draft prospects to ponder the idea of replacing a franchise icon such as Witten, who was days from turning 36 when he retired. It just doesn't get much past the pondering.

"It's all speculation, right?" Schultz said. "I think people try to do their best at like, hey, there's a potential fit. But in reality, you're going to go to whoever you're going to go and that's just how it's going to be."

Now the question is who says how it's going to be in the tight end room for the Cowboys. And if anyone says it's automatically Swaim, he would disagree. He has a new favorite word for how that leadership grows: organic.

"We're figuring things out together," Swaim said. "There's no need for me to be in there yelling at somebody who's a year younger than me. That doesn't make sense. That wouldn't be right."

Just as it doesn't seem right for him to glance around the room and not see Witten.

Edited by Associated Press
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