Dalton Schultz is entering another offseason without a long-term deal in hand, and that creates questions at a position once dominated by Jason Witten, as Dallas sorts through it all
FRISCO, TX — If ever a conversation about the Dallas Cowboys sprouts up from the soil beneath your local sports bar and the topic shifts to the position of tight end, you can bet the name of Jason Witten will find its way to the forefront; and that's exactly as it should be.
Witten is the platinum standard at the position, and one the Cowboys will end up trying to equal for years/decades to come, which means there is a ton of pressure on the current stable of tight ends to continue to produce at a high level in Dallas.
But as free agency approaches, nothing is guaranteed, and that's the bottom line.
Let's take a look at where things stand at tight end in Dallas.
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 Anthony Fasano, Martellus Bennett, James Hanna, as well as the late Gavin Escobar (who became a fan-favorite in his time with the team) along with Geoff Swaim.
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.
The post-Witten era has now seen Dalton Schultz attempt, who studied under Witten, take the mantle after Blake Jarwin's shot at being TE1 was derailed by a torn ACL and eventual hip injury that led to his release in the spring of 2022.
That was also around the time when the Cowboys used the first franchise tag on Schultz, to the tune of $10.9 million, guaranteeing both his salary for the season and that they'd have him on the field when September rolled around, though a long-term deal wasn't reached prior to the mid-July deadline.
Absent a long-term deal on Schultz and needing depth at the position, the front office pulled the trigger on selecting Jake Ferguson in the fourth-round of the 2022 NFL Draft and doubled down on the position in signing Peyton Hendershot as an undrafted free agent, the two rookies joining a depth chart that also included Sean McKeon — a promising talent who continues to develop under McCarthy.
Adding Ferguson and Hendershot was a master stroke for the Cowboys, the two going on to set more than one franchise record in 2022 after hitting the ground running as impact players, and the presence of McKeon allowed former offensive coordinator Kellen Moore to deploy four TE sets that were routinely difficult to stop.
There is a distinct possibility things look a bit different for the TE group heading into the 2023 season, however, and it revolves around the future of Schultz.
With free agency set to officially land on March 15 (legal tampering opens on March 13), it's unclear what the future in Dallas looks like for Schultz.
The Cowboys do have the option to issue a second franchise tag that would pay him more than what he earned last season, but only one of those can be used and Tony Pollard — coming off of a breakout season as he prepares for his first-ever go at free agency — is justifiably in that conversation as well.
Whichever player they do not use the franchise tag on will be able to negotiate freely with other teams and to leave for the highest bidder.
That raises the question on which position could more afford to take the loss? Schultz is the favorite target for Dak Prescott, yes, but the immediate emergence of Ferguson (who, by the way, has again shown the Cowboys know how to strike TE gold in the fourth round, as they did with Schultz) and Hendershot could lead to the young tandem being unleashed in 2023.
Things are less stable at running back, considering there will quite possibly be a contract conversation with Ezekiel Elliott that coincides with the Pollard negotiations. If anything should go awry with one or both of them, that puts the Cowboys in a tenuous spot at RB; even with the promising potential of Malik Davis.
These are all talking points that will be visited by the front office and coaching staff, as the future of the Cowboys tight end position either remains Schultz atop the totem or shifts to the exciting and, far less expensive, dynamic duo waiting in the wings.