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What's Next? Backup TE role is unsettled in Dallas


(Editor's 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 — One thing is for certain, and that's the fact the Dallas Cowboys can take a deep breath and know they made the right decision when they not only drafted tight end Jake Ferguson, but also in tossing him the keys to the TE1 position in only his second year in the league.

It's a position that has been owned by some of the most legendary players in league and/or franchise history, a list headlined by future Hall of Famer Jason Witten, who neither needed a helmet, a healthy spleen or an unfractured jaw to create highlight reels. 

If you know, you know.

And the question isn't can Ferguson fill those shoes, but rather who can complement him going forward as he works his best to try and do so.

Past: There's definitely a rich history at the tight end position in Dallas, even considering a downturn or two between unforgettable players lacing up their cleats for the Cowboys. 

It's an organization that was blessed to benefit from legendary talent like Billy Joe Dupree in the Roger Staubach/Danny White era, and many might've forgotten the fact and famous former Chicago Bears head coach Mike Ditka also played the position for the Cowboys — now immortalized in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Flash forward and any Cowboys fan worth their salt should know who Jay Novacek is, the literal cowboy turned Cowboy who set the stage for Jason Witten to later elevate the position to where it's never been before. 

A resident ironman and the owner of the franchise record for most games played (255), Witten is an eventual shoo-in for the Hall of Fame — once he becomes eligible — also surpassing Michael Irvin for most receptions (1,215) and receiving yards (12,977) as well. Those are records that will likely last a very long time, possibly several generations, from a Cowboys career that spanned 16 seasons.

Witten's stability and consistency helped Dallas weather what was often a bit of a revolving door beside him at TE2, one that conjures memories of Martellus Bennett and James Hanna, as well as the late Gavin Escobar (who became a fan-favorite in his time with the team). 

The new slate of tight ends have plenty to live up to, as will any who come in the future, thanks to Witten and the fellow legends who preceded him; but Jake Ferguson is off to a roaring start in taking the reins from his immediate predecessor, Dalton Schultz.

Present: During his time in Dallas, Schultz was statistically the favorite target of Dak Prescott, and the Cowboys opting to draft his eventual successor, Ferguson, in the fourth-round (which was, not so coincidentally, the same round they found Schultz in back in 2018) of the 2022 NFL Draft put the veteran tight end on notice that his time was all but over once his franchise tag expired. What would all but guarantee this became reality was the splash made by both Ferguson and his undrafted rookie Peyton Hendershot. 

That led to gobs of excitement for the future in the tight ends room, and Schultz would go on to join the Houston Texans, but Ferguson would find himself first in line to ascend to TE1, but there was a bit of a hiccup in that the team then spent a second-round pick on Luke Schoonmaker in the 2023 NFL Draft.

To his credit, however, Ferguson didn't view the decision as a slight. Instead, he battened down the hatches and not only embraced Schoonmaker — mentoring him immediately, readily and consistently — but also while finding a higher gear for Year 2. It was a breakout season for Ferguson, who solidified himself as one of the best tight ends in the entire NFL (also acknowledged as such by Travis Kelce) and, with that, any discussion on who is atop the tight end throne in Dallas is put to bed.

It's Ferguson, period.

Future: With the biggest question answered, there still remains several other quandaries floating about the TEs room. For one, the elder statesman in the room, Sean McKeon, contributed 100 offensive snaps and 142 special teams snaps in 2023 alone, but was moved to injured reserve in December to make room for Hendershot, who was returning from IR.

McKeon is now an unrestricted free agent but well-loved by tight ends coach Lunda Wells and head coach Mike McCarthy, but it's undetermined if he is re-signed for a fifth season. On one hand, considering McKeon is low-cost, a good blocker and a consummate pro, there's justification to keep him in a Cowboys' uniform.

On the other hand, the team needs to truly see what Hendershot can be as he heads into Year 3 after a mostly forgettable Year 2 — a splash play or two on special teams notwithstanding — with most of it being spent on injured reserve. And then there's John Stephens Jr., who was exceptional in his first-ever NFL training camp last July, despite being an undrafted rookie.

He'd suffer a torn ACL in the preseason and be forced into a redshirt year, but his ceiling is very high, given his ability to line up tight as a TE or outside as a receiver; and with the length and athleticism to be a serious threat in the red zone.

It feels more and more like the training camp to come will see Hendershot and Stephens going head-to-head for the chance to challenge for TE3, because there's no realistic scenario in which a healthy Schoonmaker (again, a second-round pick) is relegated to anything other than TE2 — at minimum.

Schoonmaker was mostly absent in his first training camp due to plantar fasciitis, and that means staying healthy this offseason will be paramount for all involved to see what he can become in 2024.

And so it goes, the only player at the position that is cemented into a role is Ferguson, atop the totem, while the others are forced to compete for reps behind him.

But having this much talented youth, with one teetering on elite status, is a great problem to have.

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