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FRISCO, TX — As this series rolls along and toward the opening of 2023 NFL free agency, it's time to wrap up things on the offensive side of the ball as it pertains to the Dallas Cowboys potential outlook on how things might shake out, this time at the tight end position — a circle being drawn around the future of Dalton Schultz.
What does or does not happen with Schultz in Dallas will determine the next course of action at the position, and the Cowboys aren't lacking for options should the veteran opt to take his talents elsewhere.
And any one of the pending veteran free agents might make for a great fit in Dallas.
This is either where it's full speed ahead for the relationship between Schultz and the Cowboys or where the vehicle the two are traveling in stalls and pulls off to the side of the road. The two are now set to meet at the negotiating table for a second time in as many years, the first being less of a negotiation at all — considering Schultz was franchise tagged in 2022. That fully guaranteed him a one year deal worth $10.9 million, and no long-term deal was reached by the July 14 deadline.
Applying a second tag would cost the Cowboys much more in 2023 (up 120% to $13 million) and it would also eliminate the option of using one on running back Tony Pollard at only $10.1 million, so if the two sides are to remain together going forward, it feels like a multi-year deal has to be the play here; but with the emergence of the youthful dynamic duo at a time when Schultz's value on the open market is arguably the highest of any free agent tight end, tough decisions lie ahead.
Jake Ferguson + Peyton Hendershot:
The dynamic duo in question is none other than Ferguson and Hendershot, a unit that head coach Mike McCarthy lovingly refers to as "Frick and Frack". Inseparable off of the field, the two joined the Cowboys as rookies in 2022 — Ferguson a fourth-round pick and Hendershot a high-priority undrafted free agent — and wasted no time making an impact for the offense.
It's a duo that set more than one franchise record in their first year out, and the way they complement each other's play style is reminiscent of what the Cowboys envisioned when they put Schultz together with Blake Jarwin. Might it be time to [already] unleash the two youngsters, considering how successful the Cowboys were in turning Schultz from a fourth-round pick into an impact starter, now seeing Ferguson on the same trajectory? Hmm…
Sean McKeon + Seth Green:
Before there was Ferguson or Hendershot, there was McKeon, and he remains in play as both a developmental tight end and one who has shown he can step onto the field on game day and deliver a key play or two. McKeon is an athletic archetype who has some traits as a receiver at the TE position, and that certainly comes in handy, particularly when discussing an ability to spell Ferguson or Hendershot at times. He'll be an unrestricted free agent in 2024, and there's no better time to prove himself TE3 (?) than right now.
Green was a late addition to the tight end party in 2022, signed to the team's practice squad in mid-October and being relegated there for the remainder of the season. Signed to a futures deal in 2023, he gets another shot at challenging McKeon and any other newcomer to the tight end room this offseason — hoping to prove he's no robot chicken (google it).
What's Out There:
Note: These players will be unrestricted on March 15, barring a newly-signed deal with their incumbent team prior to that date.
Let's begin this list on the higher price tier, keeping in mind the players named here are all expected to earn a lesser payday than Schultz would on the open market. That makes grabbing a veteran like Moreau quite palatable, that is if the Cowboys don't come to terms with Schultz but also feel they'd like a bit more time to prep Fegurson and Hendershot for the full workload of being a starter (it took years for Schultz to ascend, though largely due to the presence of Jason Witten and, subsequently, Blake Jarwin).
Moreau is a sturdy option who can also produce when his number is called. He's coming off of a career-best season, proving my point, but it was also a modest 420 receiving yards and two touchdowns and that means he's not expected to set the market at the position. A former fourth-round pick of the Raiders in 2019, the 25-year-old started in 14 games last season and 25 over the past two combined.
Want a veteran who can stretch the field consistently, and to the point he's often been viewed as a receiver who happens to play tight end (he agrees with that assessment, by the way)? Gesicki is your guy, and one who can immediately make quarterback Dak Prescott a very, very happy signal-caller. Gesicki was once the calling card for the Dolphins offense, racking up 2,053 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns over a three-year period from 2019 through 2021, but he became more of an afterthought with the arrival of Jalen Waddle and, later, Tyreek Hill.
It all led to a downturn in Gesicki's playing time and targets, finishing the 2022 season with only one start in 17 active games en route to the lowest tally of receiving yards (362) since his rookie season in 2018. Unfortunately for Gesicki, that will temper his salary demands a bit, but also makes him a phenomenal value in the eyes of a general manager (hi, Jerry).
Not many believed Engram would find his mojo again, one that made him one of the most difficult tight ends to defend at the peak of his career with the New York Giants. All the former 23rd-overall pick did was go to the Jacksonville Jaguars on a one-year prove-it deal and deliver the best season of his career — 766 receiving yards and four touchdowns with a career-best pass catch percentage (74.5%).
The 28-year-old is rejuvenated and surging forward into 2023 free agency, making him a not-so-inexpensive ask but, like Gesicki and Moreau, also one that is presumably less costly than what Schultz might command. And it goes without saying how great it would be to watch Engram do some damage to the Giants while wearing a Cowboys uniform because, yes, I'm willing to pay extra for great cinema.
On the second tier of free agent tight ends resides a player like Hooper, whom I'm personally high on and have been for a while now. It's not that he's a galaxy-eater or anything, but with the presence of Ferguson and Hendershot, the Cowboys don't necessarily require a Galactus. His stay with the Cleveland Browns was short-lived after signing a four-year deal in 2020, but not because he couldn't produce — registering 780 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in that two-year stay.
After spending one season with the Tennessee Titans, Hooper is set to be an unrestricted free agent in 2023 and having logged only two starts (17 games active) in Nashville but still producing 444 receiving yards, he'd be a tremendous value as a someone who could step in and be anything from TE1 to TE3. Oh, and there's also the fact he and Prescott have a strong relationship off of the field, along with the fact he was drafted and coached by Dan Quinn in Atlanta. I hope you're picking up what I'm putting down here.
As far as price points go, Hurst is standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Hooper. His numbers have been fairly similar to Hooper's over the course of his career, albeit not entirely, with both coming off of a 400+ yard season with a couple of touchdowns. Interestingly enough, Hurst also spent time with the Falcons, though it was in the post-Hooper era; but he still established a relationship with Quinn prior to a change in Atlanta's coaching regime in 2020. Hurst joined the Falcons in 2020 by way of the Baltimore Ravens, who used a first-round pick on the former First-Team All-SEC talent in 2018.
His lone season with the Cincinnati Bengals turned out to be the best of his NFL career, but not to the point where he'll top the market at the position. I view him as more of a Tier 2 grab who won't break the bank but also won't be acquired for bargain basement pricing. Like Hooper, I think he's positioned in the "sweet spot" of value, potential cost and ability to make waves without delay.