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The Cowboys can afford to buy high on Dalton Schultz

The Cowboys tight end is worth a little extra money.

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Monday morning brought news that Dalton Schultz, who has already signed his franchise tag and was working towards a long-term contract extension, would be skipping the remainder of voluntary OTA’s. This is a fairly common tactic for players who are operating under the tag, so it shouldn’t be too surprising to see Schultz employ it after reaching this point of the offseason with no deal yet struck.

It does, however, prompt a conversation around Schultz and how much the Cowboys should be willing to pay the former fourth-round pick. It’s notable that Schultz’s move comes just over a week after Browns tight end David Njoku, also tagged this year, inked a four-year extension worth $56.75 million. Njoku’s annual average value of $13.6875 million is the fifth-highest among tight ends in the NFL.

That’s great news for Schultz considering he’s outperformed Njoku in every category the last two years despite being drafted three rounds later. Not only has Schultz outperformed Njoku, but he’s one of just four tight ends to rank inside the top ten in catches, yards, and touchdowns over the last two years. The other three tight ends in question are Mark Andrews, Travis Kelce, and Darren Waller.

So if the Cowboys are serious about keeping Schultz in the long run, and the franchise tag suggests they are, then Njoku’s deal is probably the new starting point in negotiations. That’s a bitter pill to swallow for a front office that’s become notorious for nickel-and-diming players at every turn they get, but it’s the reality of the situation they find themselves in.

Here’s the good news for Dallas: they have plenty of pie now. In fact, they’ve got the fourth-most cap space of any NFL team right now with $22.5 million. That’s also counting Schultz’s fully guaranteed $10.931 million tag already on the books.

Here’s the even better news: the Cowboys can afford to buy high on Schultz.

This is because the tight end market is still lagging pretty far behind other positional groupings in terms of value. For example, Njoku’s annual average value is fifth among tight ends but that’s still only 65th among all offensive players in the NFL; the NFL’s highest-paid tight end, George Kittle, is still only the 54th highest paid offensive player by annual average value.

For context, Kittle is making less in an average year than receivers Allen Robinson, Christian Kirk, and Kenny Golladay as well as offensive linemen Cam Robinson, Kolton Miller, and Taylor Moton. Without taking anything away from those players, Kittle has performed at a much higher level than any of them and is widely recognized as one of the two best players at his position.

It’s also worth mentioning that Kittle signed his deal after making consecutive Pro Bowl appearances, being named a first team All Pro, and leading the 49ers in every receiving category as they made their Super Bowl run. It’s not as if he signed some sort of discount deal before blowing up on the field.

So, yes, the tight end market is quite poor right now and is due for a revitalization. Njoku’s contract extension, when compared with his production, may hint that this reckoning has already started. And with the way the markets for quarterbacks and receivers have exploded in recent years, that just means the Cowboys will be better off in the long run the sooner they get Schultz locked up. Imagine how much more costly a tight end will become by the time Kittle, Kelce, and Waller sign their next deals.

But this goes beyond simple market dynamics. The Cowboys would be smart to extend Schultz now with a deal that surpasses Njoku’s in part because it’ll be a deal regardless, but also because Schultz is worth it. Back in March, I explained why Schultz was the one free agent the Cowboys couldn’t afford to lose, and the short answer is because he’s really good.

We already know that Schultz has kept at the pace of Kelce, Waller, and Andrews since 2020. In 2021, Schultz was one of just five tight ends in the NFL to record at least 450 yards before the catch (YBC) as well as at least 350 yards after the catch (YAC). In other words, it’s not just that Schultz was a beneficiary of good quarterback play, but he was able to make plays after the pass was delivered at a high rate. Not only that, but Schultz’s ratio of YBC to YAC was almost identical to last year’s production, when Schultz played most of the year with Andy Dalton throwing passes.

Okay, here’s one final statistic to prove how good Schultz is. In 2021, only six tight ends saw 100 or more targets; Schultz was one of them with 104. Of those six tight ends, Schultz recorded the highest passer rating when targeted; it wasn’t particularly close either, with Schultz’s 118.6 passer rating when targeting being followed up by Kelce’s 101.1. Even if we expand the sample size to include tight ends with at least 80 targets, Schultz’s passer rating when targeted is still far and away the best figure. In other words, Dak Prescott threw his way at an extremely high rate and good things happened at an extremely high rate.

Schultz has been performing like one of the league’s best tight ends for the last two years now. The statistics, both raw and advanced, back that up. He’s become an important safety blanket for Prescott and his ability after the catch is likely to become an even bigger factor in a changing Cowboys offense.

So pay the man. His play has earned it, and then some. Even if the Cowboys end up making Schultz the highest-paid tight end in the NFL - which, for the record, seems unlikely to happen - he’s still unlikely to crack the top 50 in average annual value of all offensive players. For how much Schultz has meant, and will continue to mean, to this offense and Dak Prescott, that would be a steal.