The Dallas Cowboys took a major step in building their 2022 roster on Tuesday by placing the franchise tag on tight end Dalton Schultz. it was a move that had been discussed for some time, and it became almost inevitable after news that Blake Jarwin was not expected to be available for the start of this season following hip surgery. The team now avoids having a big hole on the offense. But if you want to look at this from the aspect of losing or winning, the Cowboys just handed a big W to Schultz.
The first element of the victory is that (stop me if you’ve heard this before) Dallas wound up overpaying to get a player signed. The franchise tag guarantees Schultz $10.931 million. That figure is calculated by the league, based on the top five tight end salaries at the position. So Schultz is going to be paid like he is one of the best tight ends in the league. However, he really isn’t. He is a tier below that, based on his production in 2021. He is good, and quite necessary to the Cowboys. He just has not proven he is worth that much money.
The plan is for the team to work out a long-term deal that will reduce the cap hit this year. The salary for a tagged player is 100% guaranteed and all goes against the current year’s cap. A longer-term deal would allow Dallas to move some of that hit to future years. But they aren’t going to save any money in the long run. $10.9 million per year is now the floor for Schultz. If the offer for him is less, he can take that gamble on himself and play out the year on the tag. That has become something of a historical trend for Cowboys players when tagged. Both DeMarcus Lawrence and Dak Prescott played a year on the franchise tag prior to getting tagged a second time, only to get contracts that turned out to be much more costly than what the team could likely have gotten if they had been willing to find agreement with the players before resorting to the tag. The Lawrence contract is seen as so onerous by management that it is being cited as one of the main reasons he may be released. If they want to avoid going through another situation where they have to overpay even more or start over at the tight end position, Dallas is going to have to pay above market rate for Schultz, and he may well become a future scapegoat for the continuing cap mismanagement as a result.
While it is not possible to know exactly what could have happened, it is at least possible that the Cowboys could have gotten a better deal if they had tried to sign Schultz last season before he entered free agency. Once Jarwin went down for the year, the team could have opened negotiations. They may have thought that Jarwin would be back for 2022, which would have made Schultz less necessary. That did not go their way. It also fits a pattern of optimism about return from injury, as shown by the rumored cost of an expected deal with Michael Gallup. Had the team been more proactive while there was still belief Jarwin was coming back, they had at least a modicum of leverage in the argument Schultz was going to have to compete for the TE1 job. Now that is gone. Schultz knows he is the starter. Dallas is not going to spend in free agency to try and find a better tight end, and is very unlikely to use a high draft pick to try and hit on one.
Schultz now has the power. He does not have to agree to a multi-year deal unless he is satisfied with the compensation. He knows he will pocket a very nice salary this year, no matter what. Much of the decision making by EVP Stephen Jones seems to be focused on years in the future, but when it comes to actual contract negotiations, he is always a day or a season late, leading to being millions of dollars short. Ezekiel Elliott, Lawrence, and Prescott all benefited financially from the poor negotiation skills and strategy of the team. Now Schultz has done so, and Gallup is poised to also cash in.
A big part of this issue is that the team seems to repeatedly leave these things off until the last minute. They act like they are uncomfortable opening negotiations with pending free agents while they are still under contract. Another aspect is that the way the ownership alienates their players by negotiating in the media rather than behind closed doors. All of this combines to make the process chaotic and uncoordinated, as well as more expensive in the long run. Of course, players like Schultz wind up with big payoffs. It is now an established trend. The Cowboys keep losing these negotiations.