One of the more prominent debates among the Cowboys community heading into the 2023 NFL Draft is whether or not Dallas should be prioritizing the tight end position. If Dallas does take a TE early next week, that would likely mean not giving Jake Ferguson a shot as the starting job next season. The debate centers around Ferguson’s potential; does he deserve an opportunity to prove himself before another major TE asset is added?
The pro-Ferguson camp is excited about the athleticism and playmaking flashed during his rookie season. After three years of Dalton Schultz, a fourth-round pick in 2018, being a highly productive starter, why couldn’t the 2022 fourth-rounder Ferguson step up and do the same? It almost feels circular; a pleasing narrative for a roster transition.
The other camp isn’t necessarily anti-Ferguson, but they see a bevy of TE talent potentially available throughout Day 1 and Day 2 of this year’s draft. If the Cowboys could add a Dalton Kincaid or Michael Mayer in the first round, or maybe a Darnell Washington or Sam LaPorta in the second, it would be an on-paper upgrade from current and previous options.
It’s a tough debate because neither side is wrong. Only hindsight will prove if Ferguson is a worthy starter. Or if Dallas did draft a TE high next week, it would again require time to see how wise that decision was.
But hindsight does play another role in this discussion. If the Cowboys do think they have something in Ferguson, adding another big talent in the draft could stunt his growth. We know this because it happened for over 15 years thanks to Jason Witten.
A deserving future Hall of Famer. Witten had the TE position in a stranglehold for his long run in Dallas. The Cowboys spent second-round picks on longtime NFL starters like Anthony Fasano and Martellus Bennett through those years and none of them could get enough light in Witten’s shadow. Even in his twilight years, Witten’s presence stymied the potential of Schultz and Blake Jarwin.
Now we’re not saying that a Kindcaid or Mayer would waltz in as the next Jason Witten. But spending a first-round pick at just about any position usually guarantees a starting role, especially when there’s no incumbent or clear heir to the position currently on the roster.
Ferguson’s flashes aren’t enough to say he’s the clear next man up at TE. But if the Cowboys do draft one high this year, it could quickly cap whatever potential he might have in Dallas.
Again, we can’t predict the future. Ferguson might not prove to be anything more than another Geoff Swaim, James Hanna, or John Phillips; Day 3 picks who occasionally looked intriguing but were never more than backups. But even with them, you have to wonder how much Witten’s presence contributed to their lack of progression.
Some have also argued that given how two of Dallas’ greatest tight ends in history, Witten and Jay Novacek, were only third and sixth-round themselves, there’s no need to draft one high. Even in the 2003 and 1985 NFL Drafts, there were still TEs going in the first round; many were drafted before Witten or Novacek came off their boards.
This logic does present a certain fallacy; the odds of finding stars later in the draft are obviously much, much lower. A team isn’t going to exclusively look in the sixth round for their next franchise QB just because that’s where New England found Tom Brady.
But on the other side of that coin, some teams do tend to do better with mining gems in middle and later rounds than others. Sometimes this is truer at certain positions, like when the Broncos seemed to keep making Pro Bowl running backs out of late-round and undrafted prospects.
Maybe the Cowboys do have a knack for finding star tight ends later in the draft. If so, Jake Ferguson could very well be the next one. But if Dallas drafts another TE next Thursday or even Friday night, we might never find out. And instead of making the team stronger, they might overload at one position instead of adding a needed asset somewhere else.