Welcome to the Exception Report. This series is designed to examine players and their impressive seasons, games, and/or plays. It looks for the outliers and helps understand how they are doing it and if it can continue.
Despite his historical standing, it can be easy to ignore Jason Witten. The “Dad Runner” label is more a reflection of his methodical game than an inability to separate from younger, quicker defenders. At age 35, Jason Witten, much like Evan Engram in last week’s edition, is on the cusp of doing something rare. His age bracket struggles, much like rookies, to reach 80 receptions or 800 receiving yards. Here is the full list courtesy of Pro Football Reference:
(It's PFF Fantasy's Free Content Week. Keep up with all the offerings here.)
How did he get here?
With Witten, the focus of the analysis will be on his NFL career. Now in his 15th year with the Dallas Cowboys, Witten hasn’t missed a game since his rookie season. Not only is Witten one of 14 players to surpass 1,000 career receptions, but he has risen to No. 4 on the list and passed Marvin Harrison, Cris Carter, and Tim Brown this season already. Witten is also just one of six tight ends with over 60 career touchdowns and ranks 24th overall on the all-time receiving yards list.
However, with age, there is the inevitable changes in a player’s production and patterns of usage. From 2007 to 2014, Witten’s average depth of target was 8.3 yards. Since then, it has dropped a full yard to 7.3. Those have impacted his yards per catch, which has also declined, going from 11.1 yards to 9.3 during those timeframes. In 2014 alone, Witten had 10 deep targets (20-plus yards), the same number he has recorded from 2015 through Week 5 this year.
That decline in depth per target is not necessarily a bad thing. Typically, the closer a player is to the line of scrimmage when the ball is thrown, the higher their catch rate. That is the case here as well, with Witten going from a 72.4 percent catch rate up to 76.5 during those time frames. Witten also only has four drops from 2015 through Week 5; he had at least four drops in every one of those other seasons except 2010.
Can he set the mark?
Witten has had at least 100 targets every season since 2007, a combination of his status in the offense and overall durability as a player. If he replicates that 76.5 percent catch rate from the last two-plus seasons, it would certainly put Witten right near 80 catches. That actually mirrors his last four full seasons, managing between 73 and 77 receptions in every one of them. As an optimist, this should put Witten right there with a big game pushing him past the mark.
Considering the Cowboys are 11th in pass attempts this season, compared to 30th in 2016, there is a fair chance that Witten’s volume increases so long as his team target market share remains stable. Last year, Witten saw 20 percent of the team’s intended targets. It has dropped slightly this year to 19, but with the increase in team volume, Witten would exceed his 100 targets from last year with 109.
As for the yardage, Dak Prescott is throwing further down the field (9.3-yard aDOT vs 8.6 last year), and it is translating to an increase for Witten as he is up a full yard (7.8 vs 6.8) in average depth of target. Interestingly, he is averaging over a full yard less per reception (8.5 vs 9.8) but that could change if some of those deeper targets are hauled in.
Will he set the mark?
Every offseason has consisted of a Witten eulogy and he continues to come back like another Halloween movie most people are disinterested in. The aforementioned reliability is an underappreciated but obvious positive in Witten accumulating stats. Since this is focusing on receptions and receiving yards, staying healthy is a big key. Even at 35, it is difficult to assume that Witten’s body will break down or his game will suffer, especially since we have seen one third of his season.
The cast of characters on the Cowboys offense didn’t change much from last season and no one has performed unusually better or worse than expectations. That gives Witten the consistent role in the offense and with the team passing more frequently, the opportunity to produce goes up for all the pass-catchers.
There has been some inconsistency with Witten’s targets and yardage — he has three games with eight or more targets and two games with less than three. In those two low-target games, Witten was under 10 yards receiving. While it is likely that Witten can surpass the 80-catch threshold with the continued focus on the passing game, he may not be dynamic enough to eclipse 800 receiving yards.
Eighty receptions feels like a strong possibility but 800 receiving yards will take a few nice breaks.
Confidence level: 70%
What does this mean for fantasy?
Right now, Witten is firmly in the TE1 conversation, ranking fifth in total PPR fantasy points and sixth in average points per game. Over the last five years, Witten’s finishes are 11th, 10th, ninth, sixth, and third. While that means he has declined in fantasy value, Witten has averaged at least 10 points per game in every one of those seasons. Only 10 tight ends are managing that feat this year, Witten included.
That earlier consistency issue will plague some fantasy owners, but getting three top-12 finishes in the first five weeks at the tight end position is no easy accomplishment. And while streaming tight ends is a viable strategy, the volatility of success outside the top options is high. For many owners, having a plug-and-play option is preferred to mining the waiver wire, especially in deeper leagues. Just last week, I traded Travis Kelce in a dynasty league for a 2018 rookie first-round pick, knowing that Witten was sitting patiently on the bench. Having that certainty made the trade easy to execute, even if there was a tradeoff in production. For Witten owners, he remains a weekly start unless Kelce, Rob Gronkowski, or Zach Ertz is a part of the roster. If that’s the case, a trade to shore up another position could pay bigger playoff dividends than watching Witten lead a bench in scoring.