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Open Market: Top options for Cowboys TE insurance


(Note: The content provided is based on opinions and/or perspective of the editorial staff and not the Cowboys football staff or organization.)

FRISCO, TX — Neither Jason Witten nor Dalton Schultz is walking through the door for the Dallas Cowboys in 2024, at least presumably, and that's perfectly fine when considering what Jake Ferguson has become and the fact he's not reached his ceiling as of yet, despite a breakout season in 2023.

But behind Ferguson sits a less secure situation, because there is no player you can point at, currently, and say to yourself, "Yeah, that's Ferguson's complementary piece."

That should bother you and the Cowboys, considering what's at stake in 2024.

As such, let's move from looking inward via the "What's Next?' series to hitting the free agency shopping mall to see what's out there that could reasonably help the Cowboys at the tight end position, keeping in mind this is also one of the thinnest free agency groups on the market.

FYI: *Be sure to check out the entire ‘What’s Next?*' series as a primer to this one.

What's Here:

Sean McKeon: For multiple seasons now, McKeon has quietly been the steady hand in the background of the tight ends conversation in Dallas. The 26-year-old joined the Cowboys as an undrafted free agent out of Michigan (yes, he was also a Wolverine) in 2020 and has found his way to in-game reps on many occasions, for varying reasons.

Arguably the best blocking TE in the group and one that regularly contributes to special teams as well, McKeon has always found a way to stick to the roster. But having ended the 2023 season on injured reserve to help make way for the return of Peyton Hendershot from IR, McKeon now enters free agency with a lot of uncertainty but also with plenty of friends in the building that might want him around for training camp, at minimum.

Peyton Hendershot/John Stephens Jr.: This is the battle you need to circle going into the summer offseason program. As mentioned, Hendershot spent a lot time on injured reserve in his second season and, save for a couple of splash plays on special teams following his return, it was a forgettable campaign in Year 2. That said, Stephens tore his ACL in the preseason and was essentially a redshirt for all of 2023.

Prior to those injuries, Stephens was giving Hendershot (and McKeon) all they could handle in training camp battles, which means his return will align directly with Hendershot needing a dynamic showing in camp and in preseason contests to stave off Stephens (who can also line up as a wide receiver); as both fight for the right to become TE3 in 2024.

Jake Ferguson/Luke Schoonmaker: Considering this series is about players who are either heading to free agency or on the roster bubble, there's no need to dive deep into the fact it's Ferguson's show nowadays. He's stepped up to not only own the role of TE1 without equivocations, but also as a mentor for the younger talent that resides behind him on the depth chart.

One such talent is Schoonmaker, a 2023 second-round pick who missed all of training camp last summer with plantar fasciitis and spent the remainder of the season trying to fight through it while searching for his sea legs at the NFL level. Schoonmaker, another former Wolverine, will be expected to prove himself the rightful complement to Ferguson in 2024, but tossing in some overkill insurance at the position wouldn't hurt a bit, in my opinion.

What's Out There:

Note: These players will be unrestricted on March 13, barring a newly-signed deal with their incumbent team prior to that date.

Mike Gesicki: Is he a tight end or a receiver? That's the argument that raged on in his time with the Dolphins, and that tells me he has the ability to be both. What makes that most intriguing is the fact he can provide that type of skill set for the Cowboys while also helping Stephens figure out how to use his similarly tabbed powers, making this a bit of a win-win situation, in my opinion.

Gesicki has spent recent time with Bill Belicick and the Patriots but that era is over and the former Penn State tight end has at least one tie to the Cowboys (hi, Micah) tha could grease the wheels here. It was a down year for Gesicki in New England, thanks largely to the poor play at quarterback, but imagining he and Ferguson in a 2TE set is nightmare fuel for opposing defenses.

Hunter Henry: Reliable, experienced and mostly inexpensive, I love Henry as a possible tandem with Ferguson while Schoonmaker ramps up and things sort themselves out in the battle between Hendershot and Stephens. The 29-year-old has 83 starts in his career, with 3,853 career receiving yards and 38 career touchdowns spanning eight seasons and, like Gesicki, is coming off of a stint of having learned under Belichick.

He's not the flashiest, but that's fine, because that's not what you need when assessing the current state of affairs in Dallas. What you need is everything else Henry brings to the table, including blocking.

Austin Hooper: Things haven't gone exceedingly well for Hooper as of late, but don't forget this is a former third-round pick (2016) turned two-time Pro Bowler for the Atlanta Falcons, his most recent honor landing in 2019. I'm hard-pressed to believe there's been some massive and swift decline in the abilities of the former All-Pac 12 tight end, and instead point at the fact he was signed to a Browns' roster with QB flux in 2022, followed by the Raiders in 2023 (I mean, come on).

He still reeled in 678 receiving yards through those two down years, and his ongoing friendship with Dak Prescott could only help them hit the ground running — on a likely reasonable deal, no less.

Honorable Mention: Noah Fant. Gerald Everett - Both Fant and Everett bring a lot to the table, the former being more of a speedy YAC guy while the latter a definitive red-zone threat and short-yardage safety blanket, so I'd be fine with either, but less so than the three pending outside free agents that I mentioned above — due to their likely asking price and age (unlikely to sign a short-term deal, which is what you should be angling for here with so much youth waiting in the wings). But if either were willing to agree to such, hell, sign me up for that; and especially that red-zone threat stuff.

Honorable Mention: Dalton Schultz - Stop it, folks.

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