Raise your hand if you were completely caught off guard by the pass-catching contributions of one Dalton Schultz this season. For most fans of the Dallas Cowboys, that’s exactly our sentiments as the third-year tight end from Stanford came out of nowhere and seamlessly provided the offense with another pass catcher. To the surprise of many, Schultz turned out to be a pretty important weapon in the Cowboys passing game as he hauled down 63 catches, averaging 3.9 receptions per game.
If those numbers sound vaguely familiar to you, it might be because those are the exact numbers Jason Witten had in each of his final two seasons with the Cowboys.
There are three certainties in life - death, taxes, and Jason Witten being right where he's supposed to be. pic.twitter.com/HDTGPiJYKi— Dan Rogers (@DannyPhantom24) July 3, 2020
Now, you might not be taken aback by matching Witten’s numbers on the downside of his playing career, however, for Schultz, he’s a sprightly youngster who’s just getting started.
Schultz actually averaged more yards per target than Witten at 6.9 and his 615 yards is the most receiving yards by a Cowboys tight end since the 2016 season. That’s not bad for a guy who is seeing his first action in an extended role for the offense. In fact, last year Schultz only caught one pass. One measly pass. How did a player go from not being utilized at all as a pass catcher to then having 89 targets on the year? Well, the answer is simple. Opportunity.
During his three years in college, he never caught more than 23 passes in a given season as the Stanford offense was very run heavy. Schultz played offensive linemen in high school and was a very skilled blocker. While he doesn’t have the size or the strength you’d expect from such an effective blocking tight end, he was a tenacious fighter and so fundamentally sound that he was a huge part of Stanford’s success. Despite his essentially non-existent pass catching numbers, he still earned first-team All-Pac 12 honors as he was regarded as one of the best blocking tight ends coming out of college.
Schultz just knows how to block. He’s such a willing blocker and does a great job positioning his body to seal off running lanes. He uses great footwork to move guys where they need to go. He’s not going to overpower defenders, but he possesses just enough finesse to take guys out of the play. And that’s exactly what the Cowboys wanted when they drafted him. They wanted another reliable blocking tight end they could place along the line of scrimmage to help their rushing attack. It worked for Christian McCaffrey in college, and the Cowboys were hoping it could help do the same for Ezekiel Elliott.
When Witten retired in 2018, it looked like an opportunity was going to come sooner versus later as the only other tight ends the Cowboys had on the roster were Geoff Swaim, Blake Jarwin, and Rico Gathers. Those guys had very little experience as they had a combined nine career NFL catches between them. Schultz didn’t see the field very much early on, but an injury to Swaim later in the season got him more snaps as he then became the team’s top blocking tight end.
Witten returned in 2019 and the team decided they had little use for Schultz’s services. Despite playing all 16 games, he never had a game where he logged a quarter of the team’s offensive snaps. Witten and Jarwin was all the team needed, and that one measly catch is all he had.
But then, 2020 happened. And it happened on a sour note when the team lost Jarwin for the year during the season opener. Little did we know that so much more bad stuff was coming, but for Schultz it turned out to be a golden opportunity. Suddenly, with the starting tight end spot all to himself, he was finally given the chance to do more than just seal off the outside.
What does this all mean for Schultz going forward? 2021 will be the final season of his rookie deal where he’ll only count $1 million against the cap. After that season, he’ll become an unrestricted free agent. The team invested in Jarwin when they signed him to a four-year, $22 million deal last March. But because of injury or the return of Witten, the team has still yet to see his true potential. Who’s to say a full year of Jarwin doesn’t produce even more impressive pass-catching numbers? That’s what most of us would expect anyways.
Even with a more skilled receiving tight end like Jarwin, the team must have a tight end capable of being an effective blocker. Jarwin has shown to be a liability as a blocker and one can’t help wondering which of these two possess the combination of skills to be the more valuable player for this offense. For now, the Cowboys don’t have to choose as they get to have both, but it should be interesting to see how Kellen Moore utilizes all the tools in his toolbox this upcoming season. Don’t rule out the possibility that Schultz, and not Jarwin, is the team’s tight end of the future. This past season was just the first opportunity Schultz has gotten as a receiver and we may be just scratching the surface.