The following is the 5th in a series of draft profiles for the Dallas Cowboys selected players from April's draft. These profiles are put together after watching significant amounts of tape from each player, and is an attempt to examine their resumes and play to get an idea of how they might fit in best with Dallas come training camp.
James Hanna Oklahoma Tight End 6'3, 25240 time: 4.45, Bench Press: 24July 14, 1989 (22)
There have been very few evolutions in the National Football League over the last generation quite like the evolution of the Tight End position. Coaches have learned that there are certain elements of the tight end skill set that can not be accounted for by a defense with the ease of a 3rd or 4th WR. And, instead of running out a small, speedy receiver, the league has combed the youth ranks for athletes who are basically basketball players between 6'4 and 6'7, and sent power forward types down the middle of a football field.
It has changed the way teams think of offense and defense. It has made the tight end spot a focal point rather than an after thought. It has made defensive coordinators stress whether this hybrid player is being sent on the field to set up a run or a pass. It is the birth of "12" personnel.
"12" personnel (1 RB, 2 TE) was a very rarely used package by most offenses until this past decade. When it was run, it usually involved tight ends who were basically tackles trying to open up running lanes on 3rd and short for that tough yardage for the ball carrier - which would actually be "22" (2 RB, 2 TE).
But, the league offenses learned that if done properly, they could flex out these power forward types, with the great speed and jumping ability, and they would be able to jump over smallish slot corners for passes, and run past linebackers or safeties to the seam routes. So, pick your poison, defensive coach. Whoever you line up against the tight end is going to determine his route. And there will be no right answer for guys like Vernon Davis, Jimmy Graham, Jermichael Finley, or Rob Gronkowski.
The Cowboys have had amazing success at the Tight End position going back to finding Jason Witten in the 3rd Round in Bill Parcells' first Cowboys draft. Since then, Witten has played in 143 of a possible 144 (missed one game as a rookie) and has played at such a proficient level of pass catching and blocking that he is often cited as the perfect "complete" tight end and a sure-fire Hall of Fame candidate when his career ends.
However, their dream of being one of the first few teams to fully make "12" personnel happen never materialized when Martellus Bennett did not come close to realizing the potential that the Cowboys thought he possessed when they took him in the 2nd Round in 2008. In fact, one can openly wonder what Jason Garrett and Tony Romo might have been able to do with Witten and Anthony Fasano as a tandem for more than a brief cup of coffee before the Cowboys deal Fasano away after 2007 to Miami to free up a space for Bennett.
Bennett was a very strong in-line blocker and the Cowboys success out of 2 tight end formations on the ground (especially in 2009) was largely because Witten and Bennett made things quite difficult on opposing linebackers in the run game. There were times in '09 when defenses were forced to push 9 players into the box to stop Marion Barber and the running attack and it still was impressive. But, the hands? Well, Bennett as a receiver was beyond disappointing. He never achieved 300 yards in a season and had almost no chemistry or dependability from Tony Romo in his entire run.
Enter James Hanna for 2012. Hanna was taken from Oklahoma as the 186th pick of the draft and the Cowboys 6th Rounder. It should go without saying that if you do find a player this deep in the draft that develops into a guy who is on your roster in 2014, you should feel pretty good about it.
He was the 8th of 11 tight ends taken, and does bring almost the exact opposite skill set as Bennett turned out to be as a Cowboy. Hanna runs as well or better than any tight end in the draft. Coby Fleener who was the first tight end taken in the draft actually ran slightly slower than Hanna, but has almost no rough edges to his scouting report, whereas Hanna might have to be considered a bit of a project. But, Hanna runs. And runs very fast. And in this age where everyone is looking for the next Graham or Finley or Davis, that is going to get him noticed.
In watching Hanna's game, there are some things that should be discussed.
First, you will see below his ability to head down the field on vertical routes is most impressive. At 4.45, he runs like a wide receiver. He is very smooth in his routes and has the type of athleticism that teams want to see. He was usually flexed out at Oklahoma and had a reasonably productive senior season which got him into this draft to begin with.
The things about his game that make you wonder how he will fit might be that his blocking is not overly impressive. Especially from a spot where he would be lined up next to a tackle on the line of scrimmage. From there, you can see that he weighs about 20 pounds less than Bennett and is just not the same player. On the other hand, Bennett running down the seams is just a rumor since Brad Johnson hit him on the "8" route against St Louis in 2008, so you can understand that the Cowboys were willing to concede one for the other. It also makes you appreciate how hard it is to find a tight end that can run and block, rather than simply taking Witten's skill versatility for granted.
He can block, but it requires a running start. This is achieved from lining up off the line or in motion and is not a real unique issue to Hanna, but it should be stated that the Cowboys are acknowledging that their ability to run out of 2 tight end sets are not going to be the same as they were from 2008-2011.
The real reason why he slid to the 6th round with that type of speed has to be the dependability in his hands. Speed takes you so far, but there is a reason track stars don't always make great football players. If ability was determined by 40 time, Witten would just be another tight end. But, he is not. He is elite. And he is elite because he knows and understands the nuance of getting open and making a tough catch in traffic. And while he likely has plenty to teach, his understudy has to be willing to learn.
In watching Hanna, one can say his consistency is lacking. He can make a beautiful catch in traffic, but then drop an easy one that hits him right in the hands. Or he would make a big catch and then while fighting for extra yards, he would have the ball stripped in traffic like what happened against Texas A&M in November.
You can see that the Cowboys still hope to find that Aaron Hernandez type. They have very similar frames and Hanna is almost 2 tenths faster in the 40. A tight end that can line up everywhere, do many things, not be counted upon to block too much, and stress the defense. Hernandez was taken in the 4th round in 2010, and is actually 6 months younger than Hanna. But, to compare him to Hernandez or even fellow Sooner, Jermaine Gresham is wishful thinking at this point. His development will determine if he is a prospect to follow or just a footnote in the media guide.
Hanna vs Oklahoma State 2010
And here is a highlight film - that is impressive, but we always must caution against believing highlight films for being a useful resource as it certainly doesn't dwell on the question marks.
Summary: This could really be an interesting pick if things pan out properly. But, in the NFL, you do not have the luxury of being brought along slowly. He must demonstrate an ability to make catches and to be dependable very early in August or he might never have a huge chance. The investment in him is minimal, so the amount of leash he gets will also be minimal. If the Cowboys do not feel good about their tight end spot by the end of camp, you can see them combing the waiver wire to get dependable veterans signed around Labor Day. However, if they can fashion his skills and know he will make a catch when needed, you can see that this will allow the Cowboys passing game to have some options and not need as much from a 3rd WR because their 2 TE sets are so interesting. I don't believe the Cowboys feel great about their 2nd or 3rd Tight Ends right now and also hold their breath that Witten can continue to play 16 games every year despite the number of collisions he is involved in. The tools are there for Hanna and so is the opportunity. If things break right, he can be a strong weapon for the team. But, he has to earn confidence from the QB. There is no question that he is worth the risk of a 6th rounder, but he has to make the most of his summer to make sure he forces his way into the mix in 2012.