ARLINGTON, TX — The decision to move on from Dalton Schultz blazed a path for Jake Ferguson to walk right up to the throne of TE1 for the Dallas Cowboys and take a seat, and that's precisely what he's doing as the first quarter of the 2023 season comes to a close.
This offseason was all about working to take a Year 2 leap while also mentoring others in the tight ends room — including second-round pick Luke Schoonmaker — and the last two outings has seen Ferguson begin to find his sophomore groove in a big way.
"I think Jake has really been given the opportunity to be a complete tight end," said head coach Mike McCarthy on Sunday evening.
His battle against the New York Giants was a drenched affair that led to a third-down drop, but he was masterful in blocking during that contest, and that's something he's obviously put a lot of time and effort into upgrading heading into this season; and it shows.
"The run protection and the passing game," McCarthy additionally noted about Ferguson's ascension. "He's always had a knack for yards after catch. I just think that you're seeing a guy that's paid the price, he got his weight up from year one to Year 2. He needs to maintain that. The tight end position, they do a lot of heavy lifting.
"They're asked to get in there and compete in the C gap and the D gap area, and also we're asking more of those guys in protection as far as assignments there. In the passing game, he has a real good feel for man versus zone. Very, very bright football [player], very, very instinctive football player."
He's now making his presence felt as one of the best pass catchers on a roster loaded with talent, Prescott having connected with him a combined 12 times for 125 receiving yards on 14 targets through the last two games.
In the 38-3 skewering of the New England Patriots, the worst loss ever suffered by Bill Belichick as a coach, Ferguson was again a stabilizing force for quarterback Dak Prescott and the Cowboys offense, finishing the day with seven catches for 77 yards on seven targets.
Prescott has a passer rating of 103.8 when targeting Ferguson since Week 3.
As Ferguson explains it, there's a reason for it.
"After those first two games, just getting with him after practice," said Ferguson. "We've got this thing with [tight ends coach Lunda Wells] called the Breakfast Club — where we're watching film and eating breakfast. I think that plays a big part. And when we're watching film we're saying, 'Hey, this is what I was thinking.'
"Getting on the same page with him goes a long way, and you feel that when I'm out there. When I'm running a route, I'm always like, 'OK, this is what he's thinking,' and then I go to that spot for him. That's what's going on and what I'm trying to develop more and more each week."
It's unknown if Emilio Estevez and Molly Ringwold attend the meetings as well, but whatever is going on over breakfast is working. Schultz was often a/the leading target of Prescott, and that baton is seemingly being passed on to Ferguson, who is rewarding him for the trust.
As a rookie, Ferguson grabbed 19 receptions for 174 yards along with eight first downs and two touchdowns in eight starts alongside Schultz. He currently has 17 receptions for 147 yards, eight first downs and a touchdown … in half the number of starts.
He averaged 1.3 receptions per game in 2022 — currently averaging 4.3 receptions per game heading into October.
I guess you could say things are getting pretty serious, Kip.
"It's no surprise to me, because he's a guy that loves the game of football," said Prescott of the 24-year-old. "Not many people in that locker room love the game more than Ferg does. He shows it each and every day with his preparation, with the way that he approaches practice, and the extra time he spends on the film working with Coach Wells.
"It's no surprise and it's only going to get better. He's a guy that has confidence through the roof. Obviously, you could throw into tight windows and he's going to come down with the catch. He may take a hit, but he's going to get up and let the guy know that it wasn't anything. You know what I mean? [He's a] very physical player and plays with a lot of energy.
"He's really just scratching the surface of what will be a long, successful career for him."
The chemistry between the two is quickly and steadily approaching a level that might one day call for it to be added to the periodic table of elements.
And while the Texas Coast offense continues to work out kinks as they prepare for an all-important two-game trek to California to take on the San Francisco 49ers and a Kellen Moore-led offense via the Los Angeles Chargers, it'll be paramount that the connection remain strong and on track to outright telepathy.
"I'm just trying to be in the right spot in the right time frame," said Ferguson. "Get on the same page as him and that starts with that connection we talked about like, 'Hey Dak, what are you thinking on this?'
"If we have a play in practice where we just don't quite connect, I'm going up and I'm talking to him and I'm saying, 'Do we want this after practice? Are you feeling this?'
"And he's giving me his input and what he's thinking, and I think that goes a long way, so when I do get out there I'm in the right spot at the right time, and we're really on the same page."
That page is probably dog-eared, because the Cowboys keep coming back to it.