Contrary to popular belief, the Dallas Cowboys‘ breakout candidate at tight end in 2013 is James Hanna. Many are buzzing about the team’s second-round draft pick this year, Gavin Escobar, but it’s Hanna who has the chance to really become a household name in the Cowboys’ new two-tight end attack.
With Aaron Hernandez likely going to prison for a long time, the New England Patriots no longer have a dynamic duo at tight end, but the Cowboys are trying to model what the AFC powerhouse has done so well in the past few years. With Hanna and Escobar on the roster with All-Pro veteran Jason Witten, that’s certainly possible.
Witten is obviously option No. 1 in Dallas and that won’t change anytime soon. Escobar in the fold will soften the blow of John Phillips leaving in free agency this offseason, but Hanna is the one who is going to benefit from these changes. He was superb as a third-string option as a rookie in 2012 and he’s already proven to be more than just a sixth-round flier.
During his rookie campaign, Hanna caught eight passes for 86 yards in very limited work, but a lot can be taken from his eight catches. Four of his receptions came on first down and he averaged twelve yards per catch on those plays, and at least two of those came immediately after a completed pass, which means Hanna saw the scrambling defense in those hurry-up situations and took advantages of the holes therein. That’s something you don’t often see from a rookie tight end.
Hanna also had one seven-yard catch that converted a third down, which can’t be overblown, but it also can’t be overlooked that Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo trusted the unproven rookie enough to deliver that ball in a critical situation. In other words, Hanna is an extremely underrated player who could come out of nowhere as a sophomore star in 2013.
Hanna has deceptive speed that allows him to fool defenders covering him, whether it be a linebacker, safety or nickel cornerback. Not only that, but he knows how to use that speed and solid route-running to create space on his cuts, especially when running out routes or other patterns toward the sideline. Again, this is stuff that’s difficult to teach to any player, but especially a rookie.
With Witten, Dez Bryant and Miles Austin receiving a ton of attention again in 2013, Hanna could become a fantastic second option for Romo, or even a No. 1 target on certain plays in certain situations, which is typical for the second tight end in the 12 personnel. Hanna has the ability to make plays in the passing game regardless of the coverage, but he should thrive with third- and fourth-tier coverage men paying him little attention on most plays, even in obvious passing situations.
Of course, Escobar will provide some competition for Hanna, but the elder player is a much better blocker, which definitely gives him the edge, and that’s hypothetically assuming that Escobar is a better pass-catcher, which isn’t necessarily the case. If given the chance — and he should get it this year — Hanna can be a star in the NFL with the Cowboys. But then again, what should happen in Dallas and what actually happens are often two different things so we’ll see.