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By Matthew Postins

Dallas Cowboys logoJason Witten, future Hall of Famer?

Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett is happy to answer that question.

“Yes,” Garrett said Wednesday.

There was no doubt in Garrett’s voice, and when you look at the numbers, it’s hard to disagree.

This weekend Witten will likely pass wide receiver Michael Irvin – who is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame – as the Cowboys’ all-time reception leader. Witten needs four receptions to pass Irvin’s team mark of 750.

One would make the assumption that if Irvin is in, then Witten should be as well.

Not so fast. Tight ends have been a relatively underappreciated group when it comes to the Hall of Fame. Just eight players – Dave Casper, Mike Ditka, John Mackey, Ozzie Newsome, Charlie Sanders, Shannon Sharpe, Jackie Smith and Kellen Winslow – are in the Hall as tight ends. All but Sharpe started their career in or after 1990.

The vast majority played an era in which pass-catching tight ends stood out because there weren’t that many of them. Most were considered blockers.

As offense has changed, so has the role of the tight end. Newsome and Winslow had something to do with that in the 1980s. Even today they’re among the Top 10 pass-catchers at the position. Sharpe took the torch and caught 815 passes, which is good for second most all-time among NFL tight ends.

Sharpe passed that torch to another sure-fire Hall of Famer, Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez. He’s the only tight end in NFL history with more than 1,000 receptions and he’ll be Witten’s opposite in Sunday night’s game against the Falcons.

For context, consider that Witten, in his 10th season, has already surpassed Newsome and Winslow in career catches. Entering Sunday’s game he has 747 career receptions. That’s third all-time behind Sharpe and Gonzalez.

The way Witten is catching passes this year he may pass Sharpe before the calendar turns over for 2013. Witten already has 51 receptions on 72 targets. That includes his ridiculous 18-catch performance against the Giants last Sunday and his 15-catch evening against the Chicago Bears. It’s not like he slacked off in between. He had a combined 12 receptions against Baltimore and Carolina.

All this from a guy who missed most of the preseason with a spleen injury.

Yes, the NFL has changed since the days of Ditka and Winslow. The NFL is a passing league and most teams have at least one capable pass-catching tight end. But it’s also an era of specialization. Most teams carry three tight ends. Some are there to block on running downs, which cuts down on reps for the reception-inclined tight end.

Well, Witten is an every-down tight end. He’s a solid blocker who doesn’t have to leave the field. Don’t underestimate that. He’s a special player that defenses must account for every play. He’s dangerous in play-action and, like Gonzalez and Antonio Gates, has the ability to stretch the middle of the field.

But if we want to get into comparisons with the other eight players who are in the Hall of Fame, let’s do that now:

All-Pro selections: Sharpe has the most with five. Newsome and Smith have the fewest with two. Witten already has two and could claim another this year if Gonzalez doesn’t beat him to it.

Pro Bowl selections: Sharpe has the most with eight. Witten and Sanders are tied with seven. I have a hard time seeing Witten not going to Hawai’i again this year.

Witten is playing in an era in which great players play longer. Look at Gonzalez. He’s played for 16 years and is still among the best tight ends in the game. Gonzalez had 80 receptions last year. If his quarterback situation remains consistent and Witten stays healthy, there’s no reason he can’t become the NFL’s second tight end to reach 1,000 receptions.

Combine that with his current accomplishments and it’s hard to see how anyone can keep Witten from becoming the third Cowboys tight end to reach the Hall of Fame. Remember – both Dikta and Smith played for the Cowboys at the end of their careers.

Perhaps the bigger question is this – should Witten go in on the first ballot?

Garrett’s answer seems apropos.

Yes, emphatically yes.

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