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The future is now at Cowboys tight end position

Dallas appears to be ready for Dalton Schultz’s likely departure in 2023.

New York Giants v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys will have a lot of needs to address in 2023 free agency. Between one-year contracts and other expiring deals, a lot of the roster will need attention. But while tight end Dalton Schultz is one of the biggest names headed into the market, one could argue that the tight end position is sufficiently stocked by the current young prospects.

Schultz is still the big man on campus at TE, second only to wide receiver CeeDee Lamb in receiving targets, catches, and touchdowns so far in 2022. Schultz’s numbers have benefited from Michael Gallup’s earlier absence, but he’s also missed two games himself with an injury and been slowed in others.

As this season’s gone along, we’ve seen two emerging talents behind Schultz on the depth chart; Jake Ferguson and Peyton Hendershot. They’re still not getting the snaps and targets of the franchised front-runner, but they’ve made some big plays for the Cowboys on their rarer opportunities. With Ferguson especially, Dallas could reason that Schultz’s replacement is already on the roster.

Ferguson has 14 catches for 140 yards and two touchdowns this season. Hendershot has 10 catches for 83 yards and one receiving touchdown. Last week gave us two exciting moments from each; Ferguson’s Zeke-like hurdle of a Giants defender and Hendershot running in a touchdown on some goal-line trickery.

While Schultz has outpaced their combined production with 33 catches for 310 yards, it hasn’t been by much. As a pair, Ferguson and Hendershot have actually been in the endzone more than Dalton this year.

Beyond the numbers, just the eye test shows little difference between these guys in the field. Schultz isn’t some dynamic athlete with uncanny ball skills, nor is he an exceptional blocker. He’s a solid player who benefits mightily from being a secondary option in one of the NFL’s top offenses.

New York Giants v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

Remember, Schultz was only a fourth-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. The Cowboys drafted Ferguson out of Wisconsin with the 129th pick this year, eight spots ahead of where Schultz was taken in his class.

After seeing how Schultz has produced in this offense the last few seasons, Dallas could easily reason that they don’t need to make a significant investment to either retain or replace him. And now that we’ve seen some of Ferguson’s work as a receiving target, that’s all the more reason for confidence that he could provide a similar volume in the lead role.

Since he took ownership of the franchise, Jerry Jones has seen his greatest successes at tight end come from the middle and later rounds of the draft. Jason Witten was only a third-rounder and Jay Novacek was a sixth. It’s been the times that Dallas has tried to find talent in the first and second rounds that they’ve been left wanting; David LaFleur, Anthony Fasano, Martellus Bennett, and Gavin Escobar.

Some of those wounds were unavoidable as Witten’s presence never really allowed some guys to grow and develop. Bennett was a sound pick for talent, but a poor choice given the limited role he wound up having. Over-investing in a single position is a waste of resources.

Having learned those lessons, Dallas could let Dalton Schultz walk in next year’s free agency. The big question will be how much they decide to invest in the position going forward, but Jake Ferguson and Peyton Hendershot have given the team good reason to take a conservative approach.

If history is any indication, the Cowboys are better off when they let TE talent defy draft-day expectations.

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