INDIANAPOLIS – It's interesting the way the puzzle can slowly come together over the course of the week.
Stephen Jones raised a few eyebrows Monday afternoon -- which feels like a lifetime ago in the non-stop world of the NFL Combine – when he suggested the Cowboys still may use their franchise or transition tag this offseason. The Cowboys' chief operating officer was coy when asked if that was part of their plans in the coming days before free agency opens.
"Wouldn't rule it out," Jones said. "That's in the strategy meetings."
On the surface, that's a surprising thing to hear from a team that's currently well over the salary cap. NFL clubs like the salary cap because it gives them the ability to hang on to key players, but it's not cheap. Specialists, i.e. kickers and punters, are the only players that can be tagged for less than $10 million.
The dots become easier to connect as the week goes along, though. Tuesday, Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy confirmed that Blake Jarwin was one of eight players to have an offseason procedure, as the veteran tight end was sidelined by a significant hip injury for most of the second half of the year.
McCarthy also alluded to the Cowboys' weakness at the position, noting that both Dalton Schultz and Jeremy Sprinkle are slated to hit free agency this month. If Jarwin is unavailable, the Cowboys are left with the inexperienced duo of Sean McKeon and Ian Bunting in way of depth.
"We don't have great numbers there," McCarthy said. "Sprinkle contributed this year and we've got Sean and Ian, two young guys we're excited about. It takes more than one. We can't have enough of them."
Now, as Combine week draws to a close, the picture looks even clearer. Reports surfaced Thursday that Jarwin's surgery was a significant one, and he could be sidelined as many as 6-8 months while he recuperates.
All of a sudden, maybe the Cowboys' need at tight end is a little more drastic than anyone realized. Many have theorized in recent months that Schultz's quality play these last two years would price him out of Dallas. But maybe that could change.
If there is good news, it's that tight end is the cheapest position to extend a tag toward. It'd cost roughly $10.8 million to place the franchise tag on Schultz, while the transition tag is slightly lower at $9.3 million. That's still a significant cap hit, but it's certainly doable – particularly with the usual contract restructures and roster moves that tend to happen at this time of year.
We won't have to wait long to see if they decide to do this. The tag window is only open for two weeks, and it'll close on Tuesday, March 8. If the Cowboys do opt to tag Schultz, they'd have until mid-July to work out a long-term deal, if they want to avoid having him play on such a high cap figure in 2022.
Theoretically, it's a decision that could also buy them some time if they can't re-sign Schultz. Most draft analysts view this as an iffy tight end class, with no first-round locks and a bunch of mid-round prospects that'd need time to develop. Tagging Schultz could at least take the pressure off a potential draft pick.
That part is obviously premature, but it's something to think about. What's clear now is that the possibility of tagging Dalton Schultz looks a lot more likely than it did a few weeks ago.