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.
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:
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.