The Cowboys have been very fortunate the last 20 years at the tight end position. It all started during the 2003 NFL Draft, where the franchise would use its third-round pick on University of Tennessee tight end Jason Witten. For the better part of two decades, the legend of Jason Witten was born.
In the 2018 season when Witten stepped away from the game briefly, the Cowboys needed to add a tight end to the roster. They drafted Dalton Schultz out of Stanford University in the fourth round. Schultz’s first two years in the league weren’t noteworthy from a statistical perspective, but eventually he found his groove. His breakout 2021 season led to the team using the franchise tag on him in 2022.
Knowing the franchises current salary cap situation, the chances of bringing Schultz back for 2023 is getting getting slimmer by the day. There have been projections in the 15 million dollar average per season range for his next contract. If the market shapes up for this kind of payday, which given his production doesn’t seem too far fetched, then say goodbye to Schultz and wish him well.
Dallas drafted another tight end in the fourth round in 2022, University of Wisconsin tight end Jake Ferguson. In addition to Ferguson, Peyton Hendershot of Indiana University joined as an UDFA and both have shown potential.
With all signs pointing to the departure of Schultz, along with the question marks of who will step up and fill the void in 2023, it seems fitting that the team will once again consider taking a day three tight end.
Here are three names to keep an eye on during draft season.
Payne Durham, Purdue
Coming out of high school, Payne Durham was a three-star recruit from Georgia. He held just three offers by Duke, Missouri, and the school he would ultimately commit to, Purdue. His first year in school was a redshirt season, and because of this he did not record any stats. In his redshirt freshman season in 2019, his overall production was minimal but he did flash red zone ability as he caught four touchdowns on the year. The following season he would only appear in six games but did score three touchdowns during his redshirt sophomore year. The tides would turn in his final two seasons where he would total 14 scores along with 101 receptions for 1,027 yards. Being that Durham was on campus for five seasons, he was able to develop his game and give himself a shot at playing in the NFL.
On the field, he possesses a good release off the line and is a very savvy route runner. Although he is not the most athletic freak on the field, he has enough ability to create separation. Using his savvy route running ability, along with his long arms and good frame, he gives the quarterback a good target radius. Having a target radius is good, and it is even better when having soft hands like Durham does. While catching the ball, his run after catch ability is decent because he not easy to bring down. Adding this package together makes for a really good red zone option, which is seen by the amount of touchdowns he scored in college. Another layer to his game that will serve him well in the NFL is his blocking ability. In this area, he possesses good technique.
Durham lacks the speed element to his game. Due to him being limited from an athletic perspective, defenses do not consider him much of threat to go over the top. Knowing how the Cowboys utilize tight ends, high end athleticism isn’t a requirement to be productive in this offense. What will get him on the field early is his blocking ability, and his skillset in this area would be a nice fit to this offense.
Ben Sims, Baylor
Unlike Durham, Ben Sims’ college offer list was a little bit longer as he held offers from schools like Auburn and Houston. He ultimately would take his talents down to Waco and play for the Baylor Bears. Just like Durham, Sims stat line was very similar his first two years on campus. The main difference was that he didn’t score any touchdowns during this stretch. In 2020, Sims would earn more snaps and would turn in three touchdowns. Sims’ best season would come in 2021 as he would catch 31 passes for 361 yards, and six touchdowns. By the time his five years in Waco were done, he would total 78 receptions for 785 yards, and 12 touchdowns. Those 12 touchdowns that he had scored during his college career would make him the school record holder for touchdowns scored in a career by a tight end at Baylor University.
Although his career stats aren’t exactly mind-blowing, he was used often as a blocking tight end and also a red zone specialist. Sims excelled in both of these areas and did so partly because of a high motor and super competitive nature. Baylor would utilize him in the red zone because of the combination of size, good hands, and knowing how to use his size effectively to box out defenders when he is going up for contested balls.
Athletically speaking is where Sims has some concerns at the next level. He isn’t a great separator due to his very average foot speed. Due to the lack of speed, he isn’t a threat to go over the top on defenders. He is a good blocker when his technique is sound, but at times he can overextend which leads to defenders getting off the block and getting to the ball carrier.
Sims profiles as blocking tight end that can occasionally catch passes, primarily in the red zone. If he can continue to work on his technique and be more consistent of the blocker, then he will have a better shot at staying around in the NFL.
Cameron Latu, Alabama
Last, but certainly not least, we have Cameron Latu. Latu as compared to Durham and Sims was the most highly coveted player coming out of high school from this trio. He was a four-star prospect who held offers from some of the top schools in the country like Notre Dame and Tennessee. He would choose arguably the top school of them all over the last decade by committing to Nick Saban and Alabama. Originally he arrived on campus to play along the defensive line as an edge rusher, but soon realized the logjam at the position. This logjam would cause him to redshirt as a freshman in 2018, and then in 2019 he started his transition to tight end.
Until 2021, Latu was used primarily as a depth player and didn’t record any stats. The 2021 season was a big one for him as he finally got the shot he was waiting for, and he didn’t look back. In 2021, he would break the single season record for touchdowns scored by a tight end at Alabama. Breaking any record at a prominent program such as Alabama is quite the accomplishment. In just two seasons he would tally 56 receptions for 787 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Latu is athletic, and his run after catch ability is very good. He also possesses good route running ability, and high points passes quite well. Possessing that competitive drive and effort on the field is something teams look for in a player, and Latu is that guy. It also doesn’t hurt to have good catching ability thanks in part to having soft, yet strong hands. Do not try to arm tackle this guy, because he will simply run through them with ease.
Although he possesses the most athleticism of this group, his awareness is questionable at times as his hand/eye coordination at times is off the mark. Along those lines, he doesn’t look natural at tracking passes over his shoulder. Aside from the items listed as areas of improvement, his biggest area of improvement is needed in blocking. While blocking, he plays too high and because of this it results in being overpowered at times.
Latu’s athletic profile is that of a quality middle of the field, and red zone target. If he can work on his blocking and awareness, then he has a chance to be very good at the NFL level. If he can be coached up, and those wrinkles can be ironed out, then watch out for this kid.