Many difficult decisions are ahead for the Cowboys in the 2022 offseason. One dilemma they face is at tight end, where Dalton Schultz's free agency puts Dallas in a tough spot with the salary cap and numerous other needs throughout the roster.
Schultz, a fourth-round pick in 2018, spent the first two years of his career getting table scraps on offense behind more tenured players like Jason Witten and Geoff Swaim. He also lost time and targets to fellow prospect Blake Jarwin, who despite going undrafted in 2017 was able to impress the coaches and command more attention early..
The Cowboys chose Jarwin over Schultz as Witten's successor in 2020, giving Blake a substantial four-year contract that essentially anointed him as the starter. Unfortunately, Jarwin never got a chance to prove his worth after a torn ACL ended his year during the season opener.
Dalton Schultz took over and was surprisingly efficient and productive last year. He was one of the few positives in that disastrous 2020 campaign and then did enough to hold the starting job last year even after Jarwin's return.
Now Schultz's rookie contract is up. He improved on his career numbers from 2020 with 78 catches for 808 yards and eight touchdowns last season. Dalton finished third in catches, sixth in yards, and fifth in TDs among all NFL tight eneds in 2021.
Dallas now has to decide if they want to re-sign Schultz to a new deal in the midst of difficult salary cap situation. They're currently $13 million over the 2022 cap and have a slew of other key free agents such as Randy Gregory, Michael Gallup, Jayron Kearse, Leighton Vander Esch, and others on top of Dalton to either retain or replace.
The issue for Schultz is that, unlike at some of the other positions threatened by free agent departures, an acceptable Plan B may already be in place.
Blake Jarwin still has two years left on the contract that Dallas gave him in 2020. And while the league's top tight ends are generally making $14-$15 million now, Jarwin only has a $6.25 million cap hit in 2022 and $7.25 million next year.
If the Cowboys were willing to make Jarwin the starter in 2020, how easily could they make that same choice now?
Not only does Blake, still just 27 years old, give them a comfortable starting option but there's also intrigue in backup Sean McKeon. While Dallas would likely retain veteran Jeremy Sprinkle or bring in some other journeyman for blocking and special teams work, McKeon has shown some receiving skills that could lead to an expanded offensive role.
This is in no way a statement against Dalton Schultz's work these last two years or the benefit to Dallas in bringing him back. Schultz has proven to have a Witten-like knack for getting open and making clutch catches, providing a much-needed security blanket in the offense for Dak Prescott.
But really, that tends to be the TE position in general. Could Jarwin play that same role? Potentially, and he's also shown the athleticism to perhaps be an even more dynamic weapon for Dallas and a matchup problem for opposing defenses than Dalton's been.
The truth is that we've never been able to see what Blake can do as the full-time starter. But the Cowboys thought he had enough potential to hand him the job two years ago.
With Dalton Schultz now heading into free agency with a resume that should command significant attention and compensation, it may force Dallas into a tough business decision. They don't have the cap space to bring back everyone they'd like, and Blake Jarwin's presence may make Schultz the guy they can most afford to lose.