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Jason Witten: Still On Pace For the HOF

Seven years ago, I wrote an article for the old PFR blog about Cowboys tight end Jason Witten. That article was titled Jason Witten (HOF Class of 2024). At the time, it felt a little premature, but Witten’s numbers were outstanding, and it seemed likely he would retire with HOF numbers.

Three years ago, I updated that post, and noted that Witten hadn’t slowed down.  Today? I wanted to provide another quick update.  Jason Witten completed his age 33 season in 2015.  And here’s the killer stat: nobody in NFL history has more receptions through their age 33 season than Jason Witten.

Games Receiving
Rk Player From To Draft Tm Lg G GS Rec Yds Y/R TD Y/G
1 Jason Witten 2003 2015 3-69 DAL NFL 207 197 1020 11215 11.00 60 54.2
2 Larry Fitzgerald 2004 2015 1-3 CRD NFL 186 184 1018 13366 13.13 98 71.9
3 Andre Johnson 2003 2014 1-3 HTX NFL 169 169 1012 13597 13.44 64 80.5
4 Tony Gonzalez 1997 2009 1-13 TOT NFL 206 190 999 11807 11.82 82 57.3
5 Randy Moss 1998 2010 1-21 TOT NFL 202 191 954 14858 15.57 153 73.6
6 Jerry Rice* 1985 1995 1-16 SFO NFL 172 159 942 15123 16.05 146 87.9
7 Marvin Harrison* 1996 2005 1-19 CLT NFL 154 152 927 12331 13.30 110 80.1
8 Torry Holt 1999 2009 1-6 TOT NFL 173 158 920 13382 14.55 74 77.4
9 Hines Ward 1998 2009 3-92 PIT NFL 186 166 895 10947 12.23 78 58.9
10 Wes Welker 2004 2014 TOT NFL 167 102 890 9822 11.04 50 58.8
11 Brandon Marshall 2006 2015 4-119 TOT NFL 152 136 882 11273 12.78 79 74.2
12 Reggie Wayne 2001 2011 1-30 CLT NFL 173 160 862 11708 13.58 73 67.7
13 Anquan Boldin 2003 2013 2-54 TOT NFL 156 153 857 11344 13.24 65 72.7
14 Cris Carter* 1987 1998 4-3 TOT NFL 181 160 834 10447 12.53 101 57.7
15 Andre Reed* 1985 1997 4-86 BUF NFL 190 188 826 11764 14.24 80 61.9
16 Isaac Bruce 1994 2005 2-33 RAM NFL 167 154 813 12278 15.10 77 73.5
17 Terrell Owens 1996 2006 3-89 TOT NFL 158 143 801 11715 14.63 114 74.1
18 Steve Smith 2001 2012 3-74 CAR NFL 167 146 772 11452 14.83 63 68.6
19 Tim Brown* 1988 1999 1-6 RAI NFL 176 135 770 10944 14.21 75 62.2
20 Marshall Faulk* 1994 2005 1-2 TOT NFL 176 156 767 6875 8.96 36 39.1
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/26/2016.

Now, to be fair, Larry Fitzgerald is a year younger than Witten, so he’ll pass him with his third catch of the 2016 season. But Fitzgerald is a wide receiver and very likely a HOFer, too, so that hardly hurts Witten’s case. It’s truly incredible to think that Witten is still ahead of the pace set by Tony Gonzalez, the greatest tight end in league history. Both players entered the league at the young age of 21, and both were excellent at very young ages. But given that Gonzalez is Tony Gonzalez, it’s mind-blowing (unless you’ve been following along for years) that Witten is still ahead of his pace:

witten gonzo

Gonzalez had “only” 70 catches in his age 34 season, so 50 receptions is what Witten needs to maintain his lead through their age 34 seasons. That seems like a safe bet, given that Witten has at least 64 catches in every season since his rookie year. Witten only needs to average 65 catches over the next two years to maintain the lead on Gonzalez through age 35.

From there, it will get pretty tough, as Gonzalez finished with 93- and 83-catch seasons. But, barring injury, Witten will move past every retired player other than Gonzalez and Jerry Rice by the middle of next year — he needs only 83 catches to pass Marvin Harrison, currently third on the career list. Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson, or Anquan Boldin could also pass Witten by then, but the most likely scenario is that Witten retires with close to 1200 receptions and ranking fourth on the career list behind Rice, Gonzalez, and Fitzgerald.

Will he be a Hall of Fame lock in that case? I think so. He already has ten Pro Bowl nods, and no player with 10 Pro Bowls is eligible and not in the Hall of Fame. There are 35 players in history with 10 Pro Bowls to their name: five are not eligible but HOF locks, and the other 30 are already in Canton.

Is Witten as good as his receptions numbers? Probably not; his yards per catch and touchdown numbers are much less impressive, and by virtue of him never missing a game since week 6 of his rookie year, you could make a bit of a compiler case against him. From ’04 to ’13, he was 5th in receptions, but 24th in receiving yards per game (min: 300 receptions). On the other hand, he was a very good blocker, and his reception numbers are so incredible that he has a very high perch to fall from even if his other numbers are not quite as great. He was a first-team AP All-Pro twice in his career, and it’s hard to see him not making it into Canton soon after he’s eligible.

  • Interesting (to maybe me only) that everyone with ten Pro Bowls is in or headed for the Hall of Fame, but there are 13 players with five or more first team AP All Pro selections who are not in Canton.

    Tyrer makes sense. Deserving or not, he’s never getting in.

    Faneca and Owens are relatively new and will get in soon.

    Larry Grantham has the early AFL bias.

    Johnny Robinson has the AFL bias and possible Chiefs fatigue.

    Zach Thomas has the disadvantage of playing recently enough to remember that he never actually looked like a HOF linebacker.

    That leaves Kramer, Shofner, Patton, Matheson, Emerson, and Dilweg. At least half of those guys should already be in, but the Seniors Committee is focusing guys like Ken Stabler. That’s gross.

    Regarding Witten, he has been one of my favorite players for a long time, and he has the statistical profile of a HOFer. But I can xoubt on both hands the number of games I’ve seen him play where I thought “this guy belongs in the Hall.”

    • Adam

      I feel the same way about Witten. He clearly projects to retire with HoF caliber statistics, but he’s never struck me as a special player. He’s been very good for a long time, but I can’t say I have any vivid memories of his career, and all of his seasons blur together with none being remarkable. That said, I don’t have any issue with him making it to Canton.

      • Yeah, I am not sure people will spend a ton of time talking about him 20 years from now, but that doesn’t mean too much. Maybe like a Mike Munchak or Darrell Green?

        • sacramento gold miners

          Jay Novacek would have made things interesting for HOF voters had he not retired after his age 33 season. Five Pro Bowls, and a strong contributor to those great Dallas teams of the 1990s.

        • Richie

          Back in the late 1980’s, I seem to remember Darrell Green usually discussed as probably the best CB until Deion Sanders came along and created the idea of “shutdown corner”. Am I misremembering?

          • Richie

            I guess pro bowl awards don’t back up my memory.

          • bachslunch

            Perhaps, but I don’t remember this. Regardless, players like Jim Johnson, Roger Wehrli, and Mike Haynes were considered shutdown (that is, elite coverage) corners who predated Green (and Sanders, for whom that term definitely applied). At least per Dr. Z, anyway.

      • Witten is one of the players who tests the Jekyll and Hyde part of my mind when it comes to the HOF. Generally, I’m a small Hall guy, and my ideal Hall is not a diluted one. However, I also think that players at least as good as the 20th percentile of current inductees should merit strong consideration to get into the real HOF. In this case, if Witten would be about the 213th best guy in the Hall (or better), I have no issue with him getting in.

        • Adam

          The percentile test is an interesting way of looking at this. How did you arrive at the 20th percentile as a cutoff? To me that seems too generous for someone who desires a Small Hall. I guess that’s why you mentioned Jekyll and Hyde….

          • I picked that number arbitrarily right before I got to that part of the sentence.

    • The other thing with Zach Thomas is that he was an AP favorite, and likely overrated by that.

      Otherwise, I do think 10 Pro Bowls is a better HOF barometer than 5 All-Pros, tho John Lynch was close to dispelling that argument.

      • I’m not saying 10PB is better or worse than 5AP1, but I think it should matter that a guy was considered the best at his position for half a decade. This is especially true for OL, who have insane Pro Bowl years (e.g., Saturday as a Packer or Pouncey as a rookie).

        • I think you have to really analyze each of those guys individually, particularly when it comes to the pre-merger era. The only guy who has been passed over for the HOF with 5 1AP AP since the merger is Thomas. I do think Hutchinson and Kevin Williams will struggle a little bit to get in, and Lechler will soon join Thomas on the outside.

          • Lechler 100% deserves to never, ever even see his name on a ballot. Overrated and usually not even the best punter in his own division.

  • I think he deserves to get in, but here are some things that — rightly or wrongly — will work against him:

    1) Was never perceived to be in the same class as the best tight ends in the league. Gonzalez and Gates were viewed as being in a higher tier as him. Then it was Graham and Gronkowski.
    2) He never had that awesome year in which he racked up receptions, yards, and touchdowns.
    3) He never had any “signature” moments.
    4) Defensive coordinators didn’t have to “game plan around him”.
    5) He doesn’t pass the “Can the story of the NFL be told without him?” bar.

    The last two are especially iffy, but I’ve heard them cited before by NFL pundits as Hall of Fame criteria.

    • This qualifies as a signature moment for me:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e7k-YaMfwZM

      • Josh Sanford

        It’s super Witten-ish to make that amazing play yet still not score.

    • sacramento gold miners

      I always felt Witten was still considered to be elite, just maybe not as dynamic as Gonzalez or Gates. I think Witten’s career accomplishments will be enough, it’s extremely difficult to reach those milestones. As I’ve said before, the HOF isn’t just about the inner circle guys. There’s room at the table for truly great players who excelled for years.

  • Other fact Witten facts:

    • Witten has 146 receptions for 1,592 yards against Philadelphia, easily the most by any player against the Eagles. Art Monk is second in both categories with 101 for 1,299 in two more games.
    • Witten has 133 receptions against the Giants for 1,397 yards. Both are records for New York opponents. Monk has 101 receptions, and no other player has more than 80.
    • Witten has 119 receptions against Washington for 1,323 yards. He’s 114 yards behind Roy Green for the record in yards, but the career record-holder in receptions. Michael Irvin is second with 96 receptions; no other player has more than 83.
  • Josh Sanford

    I kind of want my pass catching players who are getting HOF consideration to have had some big games over the years. He’s more than a little disappointing in that area. He’s got fewer than 10 games over 115 yards. He only caught more than 10 balls just 5 times. And touchdowns? Pretty abysmal: 152 times he has never scored. He’s had 2 scores in a game only five times. Never scored 3x in a game. (As a point of reference, Gonzalez scored 3x once and had 17 2-score games.) But obviously he’s called on to block a lot, and it may be that he’s really good at that. I couldn’t say. But when you think that once every three years he has a two touchdown game…

  • Adam C Spencer

    So he’s Tim Duncan without rings. Got it.

    IN all seriousness though, he’s also got some other things not mentioned working in his favor. He’s been honored off the field numerous times for man of the year type stuff and generally treated like a well respected citizen from basically day one.

    Even if actually executing isn’t enough for some voters, that extra stuff should put him over the top.