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Tagging Dalton Schultz is the right move based on both need and value

The Cowboys' biggest move in the offseason thus far has been met with criticism, but Dallas made the right decision based on value and need.

Carolina Panthers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Tuesday, March 8th, was an exciting day for the NFL. Aaron Rodgers announced he was returning to Green Bay on a mega-deal. Seattle ships Russell Wilson to Denver for a couple of firsts and Drew Lock. And it was also the final day that teams could use the franchise tag.

And among the players tagged in the final hours was Dallas Cowboys tight end Dalton Schultz, meaning he will carry a $10.9 million cap hit in 2022 unless a long-term deal is worked out. This news was initially met with criticism due to Dallas’ already seemingly-dire cap situation. But despite how $10.9 million for a TE may sound, tagging Dalton Schultz is worth it. And he is worth it by both value and need.

Tagging Schultz is worth his value to the team

  • Travis Kelce
  • George Kittle
  • Mark Andrews
  • Dallas Goedert
  • Kyle Pitts
  • Darren Waller

Those are the names you could reasonably argue were better tight ends than Schultz last year. Even Kyle Pitts is questionable. But at the lowest, most can agree that Schultz is a top-seven tight end.

With the franchise tag, where does Schultz rank among tight ends in 2022 salary? Coincidentally, he is tied for seventh.

So, if most can agree that at the lower end, Schultz is a top seven tight end and he is tied for the seventh-largest tight end contract, wouldn't it stand to reason that tagging him is a fair deal?

Now, maybe you are in the camp that Schultz is not one of the top seven tight ends. In that case, tagging him would not be justified. But here is where Schultz finished in various metrics (among TEs):

  • Receptions: 3rd
  • Yards: 7th
  • Touchdowns: 5th
  • Yards after the catch: 7th
  • Contested catch rate: 7th
  • Missed tackles forced: 5th
  • Passer rating when targeted: 2nd
  • PFF offensive grade: 6th

And among the six names listed above, only Mark Andrews finished with a lower drop rate than Schultz.

The only reason you would rank Schultz outside of the top seven would be due to his pass and run blocking. Which is a fair criticism. Out of 85 qualifying tight ends by PFF grading, Schultz finished as the 19th best run-blocking TE and the 31st best pass-blocking tight end.

Blocking is not his specialty. No one will argue that. But among the six names listed above as the best TEs in football, only Andrews and Kittle finished with a better run-blocking grade, and Kittle, Andrews, Kelce, and Waller finish with a better pass-blocking grade.

So if your argument is that Schultz is a bad blocking tight end, you aren’t entirely wrong. But also acknowledge that Goedert and Pitts are worse in both categories, and Kelce, Goedert, Pitts, and Waller are worse run-blockers.

If you consider all of this, Schultz is a top-seven TE in the league, and tagging him to be the seventh highest-paid TE is worth his value. So, why the outrage about $10.9 million?

Tagging Schultz fills one of the biggest needs

The more likely reaction to the Schultz franchise tag, instead of believing Schultz is a good player, is that the Cowboys have bigger needs to fill in free agency than TE. Once again, this is a reasonable argument. There are few Cowboys fans who want Randy Gregory, Jayron Kearse, and Bryan Anger to play elsewhere in 2022.

But, there are three main reasons that TE was one of the most pressing needs entering the 2022 offseason:

  1. Undervaluing the TE position
  2. Offense should take priority over the defense
  3. Relative finish

Let's first address a consistent undervaluing of the tight end. While not the central focus of the offense as it used to be, the TE is still one of the most important positions in football. Outside of having to be a lineman and receiver, the TE is responsible for moving the chains and being the security blanket for the quarterback.

Of all Cowboys pass-catchers in 2021, Schultz had the lowest drop percentage, the second-highest contested catch rate, finished with the highest percentage of targets caught, and the best passer rating when targeted. Schultz was the most reliable pass-catcher on a roster composed of three borderline WR1s.

And if you need more proof that the TE matters, here are the last ten Super Bowl champions, their TE, and where the TE ranked by PFF grading.

Super Bowl TE

Year Super Bowl Winner Tight End TE PFF Rank
Year Super Bowl Winner Tight End TE PFF Rank
2021 Rams Tyler Higbee 13th
2020 Buccaneers Rob Gronkowski 7th
2019 Chiefs Travis Kelce 3rd
2018 Patriots Rob Gronkowski 9th
2017 Eagles Zach Ertz 5th
2016 Patriots Rob Gronkowski 1st
2015 Broncos Owen Daniels 34th
2014 Patriots Rob Gronkowski 1st
2013 Seahawks Zach Miller 18th
2012 Ravens Dennis Pitta 9th

2021 marks just the third time a team won a Super Bowl without a top-ten tight end on the roster, and in the other two instances, the team wasn't even known for their offense. The 2015 Broncos and the 2013 Seahawks are two of the best defenses in recent history, they didn't need an offense. So in reality, 2021 was the first time since at least 2012 that a team has won the Super Bowl without a top-ten TE or a generational defense.

The tight end position matters more than most fans might expect. Especially when you consider that in this era, there are only roughly ten tight ends in the NFL that regularly produce a noticeable impact. Schultz is one of them.

Now, we will combine the last two arguments; the offense should be prioritized over the defense in the offseason and Schultz is relatively better at what he does than Kearse or Gregory.

Do not misconstrue this argument, getting Gregory or Kearse back on the team is still important. But Schultz is just as important as retaining those players.

The most obvious reason for this is the side of the ball that Schultz plays on. While Dallas fans are likely feeling the residual pain of having a relatively weaker defense compared to their offense for the last two decades, that was not the case in 2021.

Here is where Dallas finished on both sides of the ball in various metrics (defense/offense):

  • EPA per pay: 3rd/7th
  • DVOA: 2nd/6th
  • Pass EPA per play: 2nd/6th
  • Pass DVOA: 2nd/6th

The overall offense, and the passing game specifically, was clearly weaker than defense in 2021. So then it would stand to reason that the Cowboys should prioritize their passing attack in free agency over the defense. Especially if you know that keeping both Cooper and Gallup will be essentially impossible, paired with the fact that Blake Jarwin, the backup TE, is set to miss time in 2022 with an injury.

Once again, Gregory and Kearse are important to this team. That is not the argument here. But if the Cowboys were losing over the back half of the season and in playoffs because of their offense, not their defense, then why not focus on retaining offensive weapons over defensive pieces?

Well, the only reason that prioritizing the defensive players in the offseason would be validated is if those players were exponentially better than the offensive weapon you are retaining.

But here is the final rankings, by PFF grading, for Schultz, Gregory, and Kearse:

  • Dalton Schultz: 6th ranked overall TE, 7th ranked receiving TE, 25th ranked blocking TE
  • Randy Gregory: 48th ranked DE, 105th ranked DE, 12th ranked pass rush DE
  • Jayron Kearse: 13th ranked safety, 16th ranked coverage safety, 34th ranked safety in run defense

And this is out of 85 TE, 120 DE, and 96 safeties.

Obviously, Schultz is a relatively weaker blocker and Gregory shines in the pass rush. Combine this with the number of players benchmarked and the relative talent is negligible. But for what it's worth, Schultz is the only player that finished in the top 10% at his position among these three.

However, at the very least, Schultz is just as good at what he does as Kearse or Gregory.

And according to Over The Cap, the Cowboys are no longer in the bottom ten teams by their cap space. Meaning that bringing Kearse (probably not Gregory) back is possible.

Hopefully, they do, because Kearse and Gregory were both key contributors in 2021 and this is not an attempt to disparage them.

But let's review. Schultz being tagged for $10.9 million is reasonable for his 2021 output and it is only for one year so Dallas isn’t committed long term. It fills a positional need, given Blake Jarwin’s injury, for a position whose impact is consistently undervalued. He brings a boost to the offense, which declined over the back half of the year. Plus Dallas still has room to move in retaining players given recent restructures.

If we consider all of this, retaining Schultz is worth it, and tagging him might not be as bad as you think.

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