Mike McCarthy is entering his fourth season as the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, but his first since taking over the offensive play-calling. Since coming to Dallas, McCarthy has led the Cowboys to consecutive 12-win seasons, but they’ve failed to reach the NFC Championship Game both years.
After getting a little more aggressive this offseason in an attempt to get over the hump, the Cowboys are hoping for a big 2023 season. In anticipation of that, let’s take an in-depth look at every position on the roster. This time, it’s arguably the most unsettled position on the roster, the tight ends group.
Filling the Dalton Schultz void
Dalton Schultz has been the Cowboys’ top tight end for the last three years, and it hasn’t exactly been close. He played on 80% or more of the team’s offensive snaps in both the 2020 and 2021 seasons, while injuries limited him to just 70% in 2022. No other Cowboys tight end played on even 40% of snaps in a season during that span, and that’s without getting into his production: Schultz was fourth among tight ends in catches and touchdowns over the last four years.
Now he’s gone, having signed with the Texans in free agency. Given the terms of his contract - one year worth up to $9 million - it’s apparent that the Cowboys were content to let him go this offseason after the tight end regressed somewhat while playing 2022 on the franchise tag.
Still, though, that’s a lot of snaps and production to replace without any obvious candidates to adequately fill such a void. Sean McKeon is the longest-tenured tight end on the team, entering his fourth season. Jake Ferguson is the most experienced with 430 snaps as a rookie topping McKeon’s 312 snaps across his three years with the team, Peyton Hendershot is just behind him with 298 snaps in his rookie year. Even with Ferguson leading the team in activity, he saw just 22 targets all of last year, one less than the recently released Ezekiel Elliott.
There’s also second-round rookie Luke Schoonmaker - more on him in a little bit - but none of these four names represent a sure bet to step up and take over for Schultz. Someone will have to, obviously, but the uncertainty as to who that will be is the top talking point for this group.
Who will emerge as the top dog?
This is the million dollar question. The two best bets are Ferguson and Schoonmaker, just based off of the level of investment from the team in each of them.
Ferguson was a fourth-round pick a year ago and the number two tight end in his rookie year. Of course, that designation didn’t mean much with Schultz eating up so much of the workload, but Ferguson did start in eight games last year and was the next man up when Schultz missed time with injuries.
That said, much of the Cowboys’ offseason was filled with rumors about the team looking at taking a tight end with their first-round pick, and then they used their second-round pick on Schoonmaker. That doesn’t necessarily mean the front office doesn’t believe in Ferguson stepping into Schultz’s shoes, but it also indicates they aren’t anointing the former Badger either.
Hendershot and McKeon are also in the mix, but either one becoming the top dog at tight end would be considered a surprise. Both were undrafted free agents who made the roster largely for their grit and hard work, but likely aren’t starting caliber players.
Jake Ferguson needs to make a big jump
Ferguson didn’t do anything in his rookie year to convince anyone that he can definitely be the guy in 2023, but he did offer some flashes of what he could be. Coming out of Wisconsin, Ferguson’s draft profile was that of a player with average athleticism whose combination of reliable ball skills and competitiveness gave him upside as a developmental TE2 on an NFL team.
That’s exactly what Ferguson showed as a rookie, with some extra highlights as a runner after the catch; Ferguson’s 6.4 yards after the catch per reception was just slightly behind George Kittle’s 6.5 mark and just ahead of Travis Kelce. There’s obvious sample size issues in comparing Ferguson to those two, but Ferguson proved reliable as a blocker while offering plus value as a secondary pass catcher.
If Ferguson is going to claim the vacant TE1 job in Dallas, though, he’ll need to make a huge jump. He was never an elite athlete at Wisconsin, but any improvements to his speed or agility could help Ferguson become a more viable threat in the passing game, as well as all-around development of his fundamentals. Such a jump wouldn’t be unheard of, but it would be a bit of a surprise given what Ferguson did in 2022.
Luke Schoonmaker has doubters to prove wrong
Schoonmaker was part of what many considered to be the best tight end class in over a decade, and he understandably got lost in the excitement on draft night. Other names like Dalton Kincaid, Michael Mayer, Sam LaPorta, and Darnell Washington got more hype, but Schoonmaker belonged right in that crowd. Still, his selection at pick 58 caused several in the Cowboys fan base to immediately question whether he was worth it.
Whether Schoonmaker can deliver in his rookie year or not is a question everyone in this year’s tight end class will need to answer after all the hype. Schoonmaker enters the NFL with a very similar profile to Ferguson - reliable pass catcher, solid blocking skills, hard worker - but with elite athleticism. In the long run, that may be what helps Schoonmaker secure the top job, but the adjustment to the NFL is hard for all rookies, and it’s especially hard to predict for the tight end position.
Peyton Hendershot’s development
Hendershot earned himself quite a few fans in his rookie year, largely due to his endearing friendship with Ferguson. Nicknamed Frick and Frack by Mike McCarthy, as well as earning several other nicknames, the duo rounded out the position nicely behind Schultz. Hendershot had a few highlight plays here and there, but also had moments that reminded everyone why he went undrafted.
Hendershot showed enough to establish that he has legitimate talent, but he’s still very raw. The next step for Hendershot is consistency, whether it be avoiding penalties (he drew four penalties across six games) or improving his catch consistency or blocking. Hendershot doesn’t have as high of a ceiling as Ferguson or Schoonmaker, but continued development can ensure he remains an integral part of this offense in one fashion or another.
How will this group be used?
This may be the most important question for this group. The Cowboys saw a gradual increase in their use of 12 personnel, and multiple tight end sets in general, over the four years Kellen Moore called the offense. However, Moore still primarily featured just one tight end in the passing game rather than spreading it out.
Does that continue with all the changes, both to the players and the play-caller? Brian Schottenheimer took a committee approach to the position in his most recent stint as offensive coordinator (in Seattle) with his final season featuring three different tight ends tallying at least 24 catches each. McCarthy has traditionally featured just one tight end in the passing game, though he might lean on Schottenheimer’s experiences given the overall inexperience of this group.
The way that the tight end group is used in this new offense will play a large role in determining who replaces Schultz going forward. This is arguably the most unsettled position group on the roster right now, and there’s just as much uncertainty around the group’s usage as there is around the individual players. As of right now, it’s anyone’s guess as to how this thing plays out.