The Cowboys have a pretty big list of impact players who are set to become free agents this offseason, which is what prompted Stephen Jones to once again talk up the big (yet ultimately nonexistent) threat of the salary cap as a preemptive justification for letting good players walk out the door.
Of those pending free agents, most fans would probably list Randy Gregory as the top priority to keep. That’s fair, considering how well he played this past year. Others have presented safety Jayron Kearse - the team’s leading tackler and defensive signal-caller - as a dark-horse candidate to be considered a priority. For what it’s worth, Jerry Jones sounds confident about Gregory’s return, while Kearse’s comments last week sounded like a man with no intention of leaving Dallas.
While holding onto both of those players would undoubtedly be huge, the one free agent the team simply cannot afford to lose is tight end Dalton Schultz. That statement would have been regarded as ludicrous even a year ago, but Schultz has proven invaluable to the Cowboys.
Drafted in the fourth round in 2018, just two days after the surprise retirement of Jason Witten, Schultz was considered by some to have been a desperation pick in light of the shocking news. I was high on Schultz, predicting him to have cemented himself as the team’s starter by season’s end, although it didn’t quite work out. Schultz’s second season was largely hampered by Witten’s ill-fated return.
That set the table for 2020, when the team made a financial commitment to Blake Jarwin that signaled his coronation as the team’s new starting tight end. But Jarwin tore his ACL in the season opener, forcing Schultz into the top role. That’s when Schultz turned in a stellar performance, catching 63 passes for 615 yards and four touchdowns. It was enough for him to keep a significant role in 2021, even with Jarwin’s return, and Schultz posted 808 yards and eight touchdowns on 78 catches.
Schultz played so well that Bill Belichick highlighted him ahead of their Week 6 matchup:
Bill Belichick on Oct. 13th: “You've got a couple of great receivers, but all that being said, [Dalton] Schultz is really the receiving leader, which is pretty remarkable considering the guys that Prescott is throwing to.” https://t.co/uROSOX8JVP— Pat Doney (@PatDoneyNBC5) November 16, 2021
To put things into perspective as to just how good Schultz has been the last two years, he’s third on the team in catches, yards, and first downs despite having the second-lowest average depth of target of all Cowboys receivers and tight ends over that period. On top of that, only Amari Cooper has more touchdown catches than Schultz these last two years.
Schultz’s value goes beyond that, though. Throughout this past season, there was no shortage of times where we saw Dak Prescott making adjustments at the line of scrimmage prior to snapping the ball, and the two people who were most involved in those adjustments with Prescott were center Tyler Biadasz and, of course, Schultz.
It’s normal for quarterbacks and centers to have those kinds of exchanges, but rarely do you see tight ends doing so. Combine that with how often Prescott looked for Schultz and it’s clear the two have good chemistry. Not just that, Schultz seems to have a deep understanding of the playbook and the types of adjustments that need to be made, making him an asset at the position that you just don’t see that often.
The tight end position is a little weird these days. It’s incredibly top heavy talent-wise, with the likes of George Kittle, Travis Kelce, and Darren Waller representing the few elite tight end options; Kyle Pitts seems destined to join them soon, which is why he became the highest-drafted tight end in NFL history last year. After those guys? It’s a smattering of players who are solid players but clearly not in the same tier as the aforementioned three.
Due to this nature of the position, proper evaluations of players should prioritize those who bring things to the table few else do. Schultz’s high IQ within this offense can be categorized in such a way that he becomes invaluable to this group. Sure, there will be options in free agency that are faster or bigger than Schultz, and the draft has several intriguing athletes at the position too. But none of those players will be able to replicate the cerebral aspect that Schultz has demonstrated this past year; if they could, then they wouldn’t be available to Dallas in the first place.
Here’s the hard part for the Cowboys: Schultz is poised to be one of the top two free agents at his position this year, alongside Miami’s Mike Gesicki. Last year, each of the top two free agent tight ends - Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith - inked deals worth $12.5 million a year. That’s the kind of money Schultz could be looking for, and maybe more if a bidding war ensues. So the Cowboys would likely have to go above and beyond to keep Schultz from reaching the market, something they’re not currently capable of doing cap-wise.
Of course, they’re able to create enough cap space to do that, but the Joneses don’t seem interested in that. But that’s what they’ll have to do in order to keep Schultz. It’s a lot of effort to keep one guy, but Schultz is a player worth such effort. Let’s just hope the team recognizes that.