FRISCO, Texas – Sometimes the symbolism of this league can you hit over the head.
Things change quickly in the NFL. Rosters turn over; older players move on, younger players take their place.
Even still, there's a wild bit of symmetry happening within the Cowboys' tight end room. On one hand, there's Dalton Schultz, former fourth-round draft pick, signed to the team's franchise tag, waiting to see what the future holds.
On the other hand, there's Jake Ferguson. This year's fourth-round pick, a promising and versatile tight end coming out of college – the same place Schultz found him in four short years ago.
"Obviously, we've got a couple new faces in the room," Schultz said last week. "So just having a couple guys that I can try to help come along, knowing that I was in the their shoes four years ago. It's definitely a positive."
Without trying to harp too much on the obvious, it's striking to think of how far Schultz has some in that time span. Back in 2018, he was a rookie tasked with learning from guys like Geoff Swaim and Blake Jarwin – Jason Witten hadn't even yet returned from his brief retirement.
Today, he's set to count $10.9 million against the Cowboys' salary cap after racking up 1,423 yards and 12 touchdowns over the last two seasons. And while the franchise tag brings intrigue with it, Schultz is just fine letting others worry about his long-term status.
"I let my agent kind of handle all that business. Right now, I'm just focused on OTAs," he said.
One way or another, that should sort itself out. The Cowboys have until July 15 to work out an extension, otherwise negotiations will cut off until after the 2022 season. Even if that's the case, Schultz figures to be one of the most experienced and dependable options in an offense that's missing several of its top targets from last season.
It is interesting, though, to consider the parallels between Schultz and his understudy. The Cowboys have to be hoping that Ferguson can develop into a starter-caliber tight end. And even if Schultz re-signs in Dallas for the long haul, he'll need a capable No. 2.
With that in mind, who better to ask about the challenges of coming into the NFL as a rookie tight end than the guy who so recently did it?
"As a tight end, it's by far the physical aspect," said Schultz of the physical aspect. "I came in, I was a little bit undersized. I had a lot of room to grow in the weight room and with my own strength and explosion. And I'd say that's definitely the biggest step for a lot of guys."
Interestingly, Schultz noted that it's not game speed that makes the difference for a young tight end, as might be the case for a quarterback or a receiver. Instead, it's the asks that are made of NFL tight ends – particularly in the Cowboys' offense – against professional edge rushers and other power players.
"You're going against guys like DeMarcus Lawrence every week. Everybody is a D-Law. Every team's got a D-Law," he said. "So I think you're asked to do a lot, and you're asked to do a lot very quickly – especially in this offense and what we ask our tight ends to do is a lot different than some other places."
Schultz said he conveyed that message to Ferguson after he was drafted. That's not to put a limit on what the rookie is capable of, but the challenge speaks for itself. The 2020 season was Schultz's breakout opportunity after fighting for playing time the two years prior. Jarwin worked along a similar trajectory, and Swaim didn't become a weekly starter until his final season with the Cowboys – Schultz's first.
Somehow that feels like a lifetime ago, while also feeling like yesterday. But as the Cowboys' franchise tag tight end takes the next step in his journey, perhaps it can shed some light on the first steps of another.