Freedman: Jason Witten Props and Picks for the 2019 NFL Season
Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten
- Cowboys tight end Jason Witten has decided to return to the NFL for his 16th season.
- Matthew Freedman breaks down all the Witten-related 2019 NFL props, including those for his reception, yardage and touchdown totals.
Cowboys tight end Jason Witten is returning to football. Fans of part-time, past-his-prime, dad-running talent, rejoice.
Last year, news broke on the morning of Day 2 of the NFL Draft that Jason Witten was planning to retire from the NFL.
After a season of generational broadcasting as part of ESPN’s Monday Night Football team, Witten announced during the 2019 NFL Combine that he will end his retirement and return to the Cowboys.
I’ll say this about the future Hall of Famer: The man knows how to pick a moment.
What can we expect from Witten after his year away from football? Here are the Witten-related props for 2019 as well as my analysis.
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Will Jason Witten Play in All 16 Games in the 2019 Regular Season?
- Yes: +150
- No: -200
Witten turns 37 years old in May, and it’s ridiculous to project any player that old for a full 16-game season — but Witten is not your average player.
In his 15 years of NFL action, Witten has missed just one game. One. And that was in his 2003 rookie season. Since 2004, he’s been an iron man, suiting up for every game … if we exclude the entire 2018 season.
And it’s possible the year off from football might actually help Witten. Very few players for reasons unrelated to injuries have taken a year off and then returned, but the older players who have — namely, running backs John Riggins (32 years old), Adrian Peterson (30) and Marshawn Lynch (31) — all seemed revitalized after their sabbaticals.
Over the past decade, only three tight ends have played at the age of 37.
- Antonio Gates (2017): 16 games
- Ben Watson (2017): 16 games
- Tony Gonzalez (2017): 16 games
Witten is similar to those three players. Like Witten, Gonzalez was an iron man: He missed just two games in his entire 17-year career. He missed only one game past the age of 30. He’s a top-three all-time player at the position.
Gates is a future Hall of Famer, and although he’s slowed down as he’s aged (just as Witten has), he’s still managed to play in every game over the past two years, at 37 and 38.
Watson isn’t a Hall of Famer, but he’s a respected and savvy long-time veteran. He missed the entire year before his age-37 campaign because of an Achilles injury, but he quickly returned to form in 2017 and has missed only one game since 2012 (excluding his missed 2016 season).
These tight ends who manage to last into their old age are survivors. If they’re healthy enough to stand up, they’re healthy enough to play. And while Gonzalez was an amazing athlete who probably could’ve continued to play into his 40s, it helps Gates and Watson that they played limited snaps in their age-37 seasons.
- Antonio Gates (2017): 31.25 snaps per game, 47.04% snap rate
- Ben Watson (2017): 43.75 snaps per game, 64.52% snap rate
Reportedly, the Cowboys plan to limit Witten’s snaps in 2019, and he’s amenable to that fact.
Witten has agreed to play less snaps,roughly 25 a game for $5 million –>Jason Witten coming out of retirement to play football again for the Dallas Cowboys https://t.co/oJiznJ00tt
— Clarence Hill Jr (@clarencehilljr) February 28, 2019
If Witten is just a part-time player, it’s easy to see how he could play another 16-game season, even at his age.
I’d bet “Yes” down to +125
The Pick: Yes (+150)
Jason Witten: Total 2019 Receiving Touchdowns, Over/Under 3.5
- Over 3.5: -120
- Under 3.5: -120
Even if Witten plays limited snaps, I’d still expect the Cowboys to use him strategically in high-leverage situations, so he should be involved in the team’s red-zone packages.
But even so, he will have fewer opportunities to score touchdowns than he previously had, and he wasn’t much of a scorer to begin with. In his six seasons since turning 30, Witten has had three campaigns with just three touchdowns.
It’s possible the Cowboys could look to get Witten more targets than usual in the red zone to compensate for his overall decrease in usage, but this is a team that hasn’t passed for a lot of touchdowns under quarterback Dak Prescott. Since 2016, the Cowboys are tied for 19th with just 23 touchdowns passing per year.
More importantly, over the past three years, they have the league’s third-lowest passing touchdown-to-rushing touchdown ratio at 1.25, ahead of only the run-based Titans (1.20) and Bills (0.82). You don’t draft a running back like Ezekiel Elliott at No. 4 overall not to give him the ball near the goal line.
When the Cowboys have the opportunity to score, they prefer to do it on the ground instead of through the air. That will hurt Witten’s chances to accumulate touchdowns.
How the Chargers have used Gates over the past two years is probably the model for how the Cowboys will use Witten in 2019. Gates scored three touchdowns in 2017; two, in 2018.
I lean to the under, although I wouldn’t bet it lower than -120.
The Pick: Under 3.5 (-120)
Jason Witten: Total 2019 Receptions, Over/Under 57.5
- Over 57.5: -120
- Under 57.5: -120
In his two seasons with Prescott, the declining Witten averaged 66 receptions on 91 targets while playing 64.5 snaps per game. Not since his rookie season, when he had 35 receptions on just 54 targets, has Witten had fewer than 63 catches.
But Witten’s role is likely to be dramatically different in 2019, so his past production is probably not indicative of what we should expect.
Even if Witten’s snap total is reduced by only 50% to a Gates-esque 32.25 snaps per game, and even if Witten’s target rate aggressively increases from the 11.34 snaps per target he had in 2016-17 to 8.0 snaps per target, that would give Witten only 64.5 targets for a 16-game season.
Considering that Witten had a 72.6% catch rate in 2016 and 72.4% in 2017, it would be reasonable to assume that Witten would be lucky to turn 64.5 targets into even 50 receptions.
And if Witten were to miss any games, his chances of hitting the over would be effectively nil unless he played at a snap rate in excess of 90% — and that doesn’t seem likely given Witten’s age, his year away from the game and how the Cowboys reportedly intend to use him.
Over the past two years, Gates has played 27 snaps per game and been targeted every 8.91 snaps. In 2017, he had just 30 receptions on 52 targets. In 2018, he had 28 receptions on 45 targets.
I like the under all the way to -150.
The Pick: Under 57.5 (-120)
Jason Witten: Total 2019 Receiving Yards, Over/Under 525.5
- Over 525.5: -120
- Under 525.5: -120
Not since his 2003 rookie season has Witten had fewer than 525.5 yards receiving — but he averaged just 616.5 per year with Dak in 2016-17, and in his final season he had just 560 yards on 63 receptions and 87 targets.
With his expected reduction in playing time, Witten should struggle to hit 525.5 yards.
Even if he sees an aggressive 70 targets, and even if Witten matches the career-high 75.8% catch rate he had in 2009, that still gives him only 53.1 receptions. In 2017, he averaged a career-low 8.9 yards per catch — but let’s assume he rebounds to the 9.8 mark he had with Dak in 2016.
Even then, that would give Witten only 520.4 yards — and that’s with extreme generosity in target volume, catch rate and yards per catch, not to mention the assumption that Witten plays all 16 games.
Over the past two years, Gates has averaged 324.5 yards per season; Watson, 461. Even in Watson’s 2017 bounce-back campaign, when he had 61 receptions on 79 targets, he managed just 522 yards.
I like the under all the way to -150.
I’ve also seen this line at 575 yards with +150 odds for the over and -200 odds for the under. If you want some more leeway and don’t mind paying the extra juice, consider this.
The Pick: Under 525.5 (-120)
Who Will Replace Jason Witten on ESPN Monday Night Football?
- Peyton Manning: +200
- Louis Riddick: +300
- Greg Olsen: +350
- Kurt Warner: +350
- Matt Hasselbeck: +900
- Randy Moss: +1400
- Boomer Esiason: +1800
- Steve Young: +1800
- Tim Tebow: +3300
- Pat McAfee: +5000
- John Madden: +10000
Cut. That. Meat.
Manning is popular, funny and knowledgeable. He’s been in countless commercials. He’s one of the few professional athletes to host “Saturday Night Live.” He’s a future Hall of Famer with multiple Super Bowls to his name.
He’s even been interviewed by the legendary Ron Burgundy, for crying out loud.
If ESPN doesn’t get Manning into the MNF booth, that will be a real national crisis.
Then again, maybe not. If Manning won’t do it, Warner would be a pretty strong fallback option.
Like Manning, he’s a Super Bowl-winning Hall-of-Fame quarterback who is knowledgeable, articulate and generally liked. Best of all, he already has ample broadcasting experience. Warner would be a solid, realistic option.
The Pick: Manning (+200), Warner (+350)