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Why UDFA John Stephens Jr. could steal one of the last tight end spots on the Cowboys 53-man roster

Every season there are undrafted standouts, and Stephens Jr. looks the part this year.

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NFL: Preseason-Jacksonville Jaguars at Dallas Cowboys Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

There must be something in the water that tight ends coach Lunda Wells is giving his guys because the Dallas Cowboys continue to have a knack for pulling quality tight ends out of a hat. It’s been an ongoing thing as late-round/no-round guys continue to emerge as reliable tight ends for this team.

Starting with turning fourth-round pick Dalton Schultz into a relevant pass catcher, the team is on a roll in replenishing good contributors with low-cost draft capital. Last year’s fourth-round pick Jake Ferguson had a solid rookie season and looks even better this year. The team has also been effective in signing priority free agent tight ends who somehow work themselves into a role on the team. They did this with Sean McKeon in 2020 and again last year with Peyton Hendershot. Between offense and special teams, McKeon has logged over 200 snaps in each of the last three seasons while Hendershot had just shy of 600 snaps last year.

This season, the team tried their hand at an earlier investment when they selected Luke Schoonmaker in the second round of April’s draft. Only time will tell what he becomes, but he has the athleticism and blocking chops to be a great player at his position. This sets the stage for another strong tight end group for the Cowboys in 2023.

But the fun doesn’t stop there. Once again, the team looks to have found something while sifting through the UDFA bin as wide receiver/converted tight end John Stephens Jr. is creating all kinds of buzz so far.

Stephens Jr. played five years in college between TCU and Louisiana, all at wide receiver, but at no point was he a featured part of the offense. He’s a guy who came off the bench and added very little in terms of passing statistics. But what he lacks in a college résumé, he brings in size and athleticism. There is nothing about his skill set that gives him a chance to work himself on the team as a wide receiver, but it’s a completely different story when you start talking about him as a tight end.

Not only will his size make him a nice red zone target, but his length and hand usage should make it difficult for defenders to cover him up. And while he doesn’t have much experience as a blocker, he has the agility and physicality to develop into an effective in-line blocker. He’s raw in that area for sure, but the tools are there and in the meantime, he can still add something in the passing game.

When you look at the tight end group, they are in great shape at the top. Schoonmaker and Ferguson could end up being one of the top duos come this time next year and should be very solid right now. After that, the team has the incumbents McKeon and Hendershot, but neither are players the team can’t live without. McKeon is a blocking specialist with little to offer as a receiver, whereas Hendershot’s blocking is very inconsistent but he brings more athleticism as a receiver.

With the upside of Stephens Jr., the Cowboys may roll the dice with their new discovery and cut ties with one of their UDFA veterans. If that happens, which one of these guys is more at risk? That is a question I posed for Pro Football Focus editor John Owning and here is what he had to say...


This may be an unpopular opinion, but I believe Peyton Hendershot is more at risk of losing his job to John Stephens Jr. than Sean McKeon. Given the limited nature of NFL rosters, McKeon’s ability to align and contribute in multiple roles — as a traditional tight end or in a fullback role as a lead blocker — puts him in a bit of a different category than Hendershot, who only contributes in traditional tight end roles.

Moreover, while McKeon has drawn praise from new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, in particular, many in attendance at the Cowboys’ training camp have lamented Hendershot’s inability to stand out.

Both Schoonmaker and Ferguson are good blockers but also possess skills in the receiving game. With Stephens Jr. offering more as a receiving, it would make sense that if they kept him as well as one additional tight end, it could end up being McKeon for the extra value he brings as a blocker.


If the Cowboys go with Ferguson, Schoonmaker, and Stephens Jr. as their top three tight ends, which player is more likely to earn the TE4 job?

This poll is closed

  • 57%
    Peyton Hendershot
    (282 votes)
  • 42%
    Sean McKeon
    (210 votes)
492 votes total Vote Now

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