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Cowboys’ approach to tight end sheds light on offense under Mike McCarthy

What the Cowboys told us about their offense without actually telling us.

Vrbo Fiesta Bowl - Michigan v TCU Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

When the Cowboys opted to part ways with Kellen Moore, elevate Brian Schottenheimer to offensive coordinator, and hand over play-calling duties to Mike McCarthy, the question immediately became one of how much was changing in this offense. And to the surprise of nobody who knows how McCarthy operates, details have been few and far between.

There are hints out there, though. Both McCarthy and Schottenheimer have been around the league long enough to have developed some clear trends in the way they run an offense, and the Cowboys’ offseason moves have offered some level of clarity as well. McCarthy has insisted that it isn’t a drastic change, but more of a tweak to the existing system, and even confirmed that the language of the offense is remaining the same.

One area that seemed ripe for change, though, was how the Cowboys use the tight end position. McCarthy’s offenses in Green Bay favored a certain type of tight end, and that player profile is becoming more popular in the NFL as offenses adapt to more middle-of-the-field attacks as a response to the rising popularity of the split safety defense. So when the smoke started billowing around Dallas taking a tight end in the first round, it seemed as if the Cowboys were ready to tweak the way they use that position.

It turned out there wasn’t any fire behind that smoke. The Bills traded up to snag Dalton Kincaid, and Dallas passed on Michael Mayer with their first-round pick. They spent their second-round pick on Luke Schoonmaker, the tight end out of Michigan with limited production, after a run on the position happened early in the second round.

While Schoonmaker’s selection confirmed that the team was, in fact, interested in bolstering their tight end position, it also offered a glimpse into what the team plans to do with the position moving forward.

Kincaid, and to a lesser extent Mayer, were players in the mold of what the modern day tight end is becoming. Like Travis Kelce or Kyle Pitts, they are receiving threats first and foremost who can line up in a variety of alignments but also hold their own when asked, on occasion, to work as a blocker. This tight end class was filled with guys like that, including Luke Musgrave, Sam LaPorta, Tucker Kraft, Will Mallory, and more.

Schoonmaker, however, is not of that mold. Granted, Schoonmaker’s limited role in college - just one season with 20+ catches - makes it challenging to fully project his ceiling, but Schoonmaker isn’t a receiver in a tight end’s body. He has a very traditional play style for a tight end, equally adept at blocking as well as operating as a short route target in the passing game. Schoonmaker’s elite athleticism - he posted the third best Relative Athletic Score among this year’s tight end class - gives him valuable upside, but he’s a different style of tight end from the other names at the top of his class.

That’s what’s so telling about the Cowboys taking him in the second round. In many ways, Schoonmaker resembles Jake Ferguson. Their physical profiles are nearly identical - height, weight, length, you name it - and their play styles offer plenty of resemblance too. Both tight ends were blockers on over 62% of their offensive snaps their final year in college, with over two thirds of their targets coming within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.

Relative Athletic Score comparison, Luke Schoonmaker and Jake Ferguson

The biggest difference is their athletic profiles: Schoonmaker is a significantly better athlete, which is why he was drafted in the second round while Ferguson waited until the fourth. But they look and play the same, more or less.

This offers a clue that the Cowboys’ usage of tight ends will remain largely the same from last year to this year, namely with an emphasis on 12 personnel putting both players on the field at once. The Cowboys have seen a gradual increase in their use of 12 personnel over the last few years, and the grouping accounted for 23% of their offensive plays in 2022.

However, the Cowboys primarily used 12 personnel as a run package, doing so on 62% of their 12 personnel plays. That number was a lot lower - 55% to be exact - in 2021. Some of that undoubtedly has to do with the nagging injuries that Dalton Schultz had in 2022, as well as the fact that Ferguson had nearly double the amount of snaps in 12 personnel as Schultz.

Ferguson started to show positive traits as a pass catcher later in the season - averaging 2.11 yards per route run and tallying nearly half of his yards after the catch for the year in his final five games - but it’s understandable why Dallas didn’t feature him too heavily towards the start of the season.

However, the Schoonmaker addition likely means the Cowboys saw those flashes from Ferguson and envisioned the best way to take advantage of his skill set. Adding a Ferguson clone gives McCarthy and this offense flexibility, especially in 12 personnel. They can still deploy their tight ends the same way in terms of personnel groupings and alignment, but the actual assignments can expand, which in turn expands the playbook at McCarthy’s disposal on game days.

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