The life of an aspiring NFL player is one of uncertainty. One never knows when or if opportunity will come knocking. It could be because somebody got hurt or a veteran decided to hang up the cleats. Or maybe it's because someone left the team via free agency. In the case of Cowboys tight end Dalton Schultz, it's all three.
Schultz's most recent opportunity for extended playing time came as a result of an injury to starter Blake Jarwin. Previous to that, he was part of the plan to replace Cowboys legend Jason Witten – twice.
Witten retired to the Monday Night Football broadcast booth before Schultz's rookie season. A year later, the Cowboys all-time leader in receptions returned to the team in Schultz's sophomore campaign. Witten left again this offseason, this time to sign with the Las Vegas Raiders as a free agent. No matter, Schultz has responded the same way each time – with hard work and preparation.
Having Witten around for the one year was an unexpected bonus.
"(Witten) was like an open book," Schultz says when asked about Witten's influence in 2019. "He was a huge help to the [tight end] room. Now that he's gone, it's about taking that and using it to propel yourself forward."
Last season, Witten conveyed the finer points of playing the position in the NFL. Things like which defender would be in coverage in certain situations. He was generally a coach on the field for all the young tight ends.
"I learned more in that one year than I probably would have learned in five years," says Schultz of Witten's tutelage. "He gave us all a big head start."
Actually, Witten helped Schultz even before that, albeit indirectly. It was Witten's original departure that had the Cowboys searching for viable options at tight end in the 2018 NFL Draft to help fill the void. The search led them to Schultz, a 6-5, 244-pounder who earned All-PAC 12 honors at Stanford. He was on the radar of a lot of teams, not only for his ability to catch and run with the ball but also for his work as a blocker. At Stanford, he helped paved the way for the likes of highly successful Cardinal running backs Christian McCaffrey and Bryce Love.
McCaffrey rushed for 3,622 yards and scored 21 touchdowns in his final two seasons at Stanford, and was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy after the 2015 season. The Carolina Panthers then drafted him in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft, eighth overall. Despite missing a good portion of this season due to injury, McCaffrey remains one of the best all-around offensive weapons in the NFL.
Love was McCaffrey's backup his first two years before gaining over 2,000 yards rushing in 2017 as his replacement. But, injuries have curtailed his career both as a senior at Stanford and in his two seasons with Washington, which took him in the fourth round of the 2019 draft.
With the two prolific runners at Stanford, Schultz's value as a blocker was not in question, but it did limit his opportunities to catch the ball. He had 55 receptions over three seasons for 555 yards and five touchdowns. Solid, but certainly not eye-popping.
Perhaps because of that, Dallas was able to get Schultz with its fourth-round pick (No. 137 overall) in 2018, although as far as tight ends go, there have been few better places to find one than Stanford University. Since 2010, seven Cardinal tight ends have been selected in the draft and an eighth made the league as an undrafted player.
The headliner of the Stanford tight end club has been Philadelphia's Zach Ertz (2013, second round), a Pro Bowler who is arguably one of the best in the business. Ertz followed Coby Fleener, who was taken by Indianapolis in the second round of the 2012 draft. Current Cleveland tight end Austin Hooper went in the third round to Atlanta in 2016, and Schultz followed Ertz.
Stanford's reputation for tight end success also played a major part in Schultz's college selection when several schools came calling following his stellar scholastic career at Bingham High School in South Jordan, Utah. He was a three-year varsity performer at Bingham and was rated a four-star recruit by Scout, Rivals, ESPN and 247Sports. Scout and ESPN even had him rated as the top high school tight end prospect in the country, and he was generally regarded as one of Utah's best prospects overall following his senior year.
During his high school career, Schultz had 76 receptions for 1,120 yards and 12 touchdowns, which included his senior year when he recorded 31 catches, with nine scores. And easy choice for the all-state first team, Schultz was also tabbed by the Orange County (Calif.) Register for the All-West Coast "Fab 15" first team. Bingham went undefeated and won the state championship his senior season.
"I think it's about a good a fit as you're going to get," Bingham head coach Dave Peck told reporters back when Schultz announced he was going to Stanford. "I know there's not another program in the nation that uses tight ends like Stanford does. Stanford wanted him bad. They feel like he can come right in and play. They love his ball skills, but they love even more that he's a physical kid with his blocking who wants to come after it."
Peck was as right about his assessment of Schultz's future at Stanford as he was when he had a decision to make three years earlier regarding where to put the athletic prospect.
"Going into his sophomore year, we had another kid who was going to be a junior. One was going to be a tight end and the other was going to be a linebacker," remembers Peck in a recent phone conversation. "The coaches all agreed that Dalton should be the tight end and the other kid, Durrant Miles, should be the linebacker. It worked out pretty well for both of them."
Miles ended up going to Boise State on a full scholarship. He was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons but was among the last cuts coming out of training camp in 2019. He was playing for the Seattle Dragons in the XFL when the league shut down due to the coronavirus last spring and is still hoping to catch on with an NFL club.
Peck could see early on that Schultz had the attitude and desire to play on Sundays.
"From Day One as an eighth grader, Dalton always worked hard. We knew right from the beginning. He had that big frame, great attitude, the 'it' factor," says Peck, who added that Schultz was also a good student in the classroom. "He had a lot of other offers besides Stanford. Some publications had him as the No. 1 high school tight end in the country. The first year or two, we didn't throw the ball that much. We were an I-back team, but he was the best blocking tight end that we ever had. In the 7-on-7 drills, he would just tear it up. He was very coachable and a great team player. Never complained and was part of some really good teams."
Besides Miles and Schultz, Bingham has produced additional NFL talent. Former Miami Dolphin and Bingham alum Bruce Hardy played in the NFL from 1978-89, while Kevin Curtis was a wide receiver for several teams, including the Philadelphia Eagles, from 2003-2011. Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei was an All-American at Utah before being drafted in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft by the Panthers, and Harvey Langi is currently a linebacker for the New York Jets.
Peck is back at Bingham after a short retirement, but the time away gave him ample opportunity to follow Schultz's collegiate career. He would also make sure to visit Palo Alto to see Stanford in action while his former player was there. And, of course, he's now transformed into a big Dallas Cowboys fan.
"We definitely keep in touch. He'll text me and we'll talk. We're all really proud of Dalton and how he represents us," said Peck. "Anytime the Cowboys are on, I'm watching."
Although this 2020 campaign has been a struggle for Dallas' team, a shining bright spot has been the play of Shultz. Once Jarwin was lost for the season with a torn ACL in the season opener against the Los Angeles Rams, there was some concern about who would fill the void. No more. Schultz has stepped right in and made himself a key cog in the Cowboys' offensive machine.
In his first start against Atlanta in Week 2, he had career highs in receptions (9) and yards (88) while also recording his first career touchdown. He then had four catches for 72 yards and another score in Week 4 against Cleveland. Coming out of the bye week, he already had 35 grabs for 383 yards overall, both of which were easily personal bests.
Jarwin was signed to a contract extension prior to the 2020 season and is under contract until 2024. Schultz is on his rookie deal that runs through 2021. Based on his first three seasons, he knows it's best to focus on what happens on the field.
"All I can do is do my best to be ready to take advantage of any opportunity," Schultz says. "I need to just continue to put in as much work as I can."
Which if this year is any indication, means the Cowboys' tight end situation will still be in good hands.