The Cowboys haven't had much drama at the tight end position for about the last two decades. Not only is Dallas currently embroiled in contract negotiations with starter Dalton Schultz, but the backup spots are also still wide open and heading towards some interesting battles in training camp.
We went a long time not really worrying too much about who the TE2 was around here. Jason Witten had a stranglehold on the position for about 15 years and made his backup a relatively meaningless roster spot. Even a talented guy like Martellus Bennett was wasted here with a lack of passing game opportunities and Witten's ironman toughness and rarely missed games.
Things changed in 2018 when Jason tried to become a broadcaster and left the position to Geoff Swaim, Blake Jarwin, and then-rookie Dalton Schultz. Even when Witten came back in 2019, the backup spot was of greater intrigue with #82 looking slow on the field and likely not returning the following season.
This year we've got all the drama. At the top of the TE depth chart, Schultz got the franchise tag and is reportedly frustrated with his contract talks. At this point, with the deadline to reach a long-term deal just 11 days away, this story could now drag on into the next offseason.
Last year's backup, Blake Jarwin, is still a free agent as he deals with a career-threatening hip injury. Dallas released him in March for some cap relief, but mainly because there were significant doubts that Jarwin would be able to play at all in 2022.
Last year TE2 became a non-factor once Jarwin went out in the middle of the season. His exit coincided with Michael Gallup's return to the offense from an ankle injury, giving Dallas its three-headed monster again at WR and limiting opportunities for any TE other than Schultz.
This year should be different. Amari Cooper's in Cleveland, Cedrick Wilson's in Miami, and Gallup may miss the early part of the year as finishes recovery from a torn ACL. The opportunity for TE2 to play a larger offensive role, especially in September, is much greater.
The potential for Dalton to play on just a one-year deal puts even more attention on Sean McKeon, Jeremy Sprinkle, and rookie Jake Ferguson as the backups and potential replacements in 2023. Will the Cowboys make an effort to involve them more in the offense to see what their potential for next season is?
Sprinkle is probably the odd man out here. The sixth-year veteran is mostly just a blocker and special teams player, getting only three total passing targets in 2021 despite playing in all 17 games. If he makes the roster at all this year it should be in a similar role.
McKeon didn't see much more work last year, only six targets, but made one of them count with his first NFL touchdown in the Thanksgiving game against Las Vegas. The athletic prospect, now entering his third season, is somewhat reminiscent of Blake Jarwin in terms of his potential.
Dallas used a 4th-Round pick last April to draft Ferguson. With Schultz having been a 4th-rounder himself in 2018, some are drawing a line to Ferguson being the most likely to step up and take over the position the way same way Dalton did.
As Tony Romo once said, football is a meritocracy. Much like when Jarwin was outplaying Schultz before his 2020 injury, Dallas isn't going to just hand things over to Ferguson based on draft status. If McKeon is the best option then he could easily be the guy to back up Dalton now and perhaps claim a larger role next year.
All of this puts a spotlight on the tight-end position going into training camp. While Dalton Schultz rightfully gets the most attention as the starter, the battle to be his backup and perhaps more in the future creates intrigue we have rarely seen further down the depth chart. If Schultz does end up playing 2022 on the franchise tag, this year's backup may very well become next year's starter.
Whether it's Sean McKeon or Jake Ferguson (apologies to Jeremy Sprinkle), they may very well be auditioning for more than one job this summer.