Dalton Schultz is a very good, reliable tight end and was a favorite target for Dak Prescott. He developed from a 4th-round pick to a player who should be a consensus top-10 tight end and is closer to 5th at the position than 10th.
He deserved to get paid more than the one-year, up to $9M deal he got from the Houston Texans, but according to Mike Fisher of CowboysSI.com, Dallas didn't make a single offer to him during THIS free agency period.
If this is true, despite all the positives with Schultz, this is a great sign of the Dallas front office looking at the big picture when it comes to team building.
I want to explore why that was the right choice despite his below-market deal.
There are three main factors in the decision to move on that made it an easy one in my opinion.
The “Next man up” mentality
The first reason is Jake Ferguson and Peyton Hendershot.
It is not reasonable to expect or predict either one to take a big enough step to completely fill the shoes of a guy who just had 12 catches for 122 yards, and 3 touchdowns in the 2022 playoffs.
Eleven months ago, Ferguson was the 8th tight end selected in the 2022 NFL Draft and Hendershot was not one of the 19 tight ends selected.
So please don't read this as these two being the definitive solution at tight end, but more so providing a floor of what the tight end could be post-Schultz. A floor that shouldn't be too far off from the ceiling Schultz provided, as we'll explore next.
The now 2nd-year players both flashed enough in limited roles as rookies to provide a glimpse into what they might be.
They are nowhere near finished products, but their combination should give you at least 75% of Schultz's production, and possibly closer to 100% with a year under their belt and an expanded role.
For reference, Schultz's averages per game over the last two seasons were: 4.5 catches, just over 46 yards, and ~0.43 TDs (this is with removing his 0/0/0 games in Weeks 4 & 5 of 2023, where he was clearly not 100% from the knee injury he suffered in Week 2).
His value as a consistent, reliable chain mover is much deeper than purely counting stats, but Ferg/Hen should easily be able to combine for 3/35/0.33 per game in 2023.
Schultz also isn't some elite run-blocker, so if there is a dip there, it should also be minor.
Overall, what they did as rookies and projecting some development in year two gives the Cowboys suitable replacements for a fraction of the cost. Despite the vote of confidence in those two, I would still like them to add to the position, either with a veteran free agent or a draft pick in the first three rounds of the draft.
That brings me to the second reason this was a great move.
Deep 2023 Draft class at tight end
According to most draft analysts, this is supposed to be one of the deepest tight end classes in a long time.
Where many classes see zero or one tight end selected in the first round (in the last 15 drafts, there have only been 10 tight ends selected in round one), a quick look at a few mock drafts and you can find three to four different names who all find themselves in the first 31 picks.
All of whom are considered worthy of that first-round selection depending on which analyst you look at.
Whether it is Notre Dame's Michael Mayer, Utah's Dalton Kincaid, Georgia's Darnell Washington, or Oregon State's Luke Musgrave, all four are top-30 players according to TheAthletic's Dane Brugler's most recent top-100; signaling, if nothing else, that their selection at pick 26 wouldn't be a reach.
Going beyond the first round, there are players like South Dakota State's Tucker Kraft (#49 on Brugler's top-100), Iowa's Sam LaPorta (#61), and Michigan's Luke Schoonmaker (#100) who could make for a quality pick on day two.
If Dallas had re-signed Schultz, selecting a tight end early would have likely been out of the picture, thus missing out on what is shaping up to be a great tight end class.
By allowing him to walk, they have the freedom and flexibility to take one early if that is the best player on their board, or if the board doesn't fall the way they want, roll into 2023 with Ferg/Hen/TBD vet.
The point of emphasis is losing Schultz doesn't create a glaring need at tight end where you have to draft one early, but now there is an opportunity to take advantage of a deep position.
For all that Schultz is, I do think his ceiling is rather limited and we've probably already seen the best version of him, or close to it. I don't see him ever becoming a game-breaking tight end like Travis Kelce, George Kittle, or Mark Andrews.
Re-signing him would have maintained the status quo at the position, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but passing on opportunities at upgrading tight end due to his presence could be.
By allowing him to walk, though, Dallas can now potentially upgrade the position with minimal risk of a major drop-off.
Could one of Ferguson/Hendershot be that upgrade? Highly unlikely, but possible.
Could a 2023 draft pick be better by the end of 2023 or the start of 2024? Potentially and likely still improbable, but again the cost of Schultz vs the production he provides above his replacements, plus closing the door on upgrading the position wasn't worth it.
Playing the salary cap game
That brings me to the final reason why it was good to move on from Schultz. It's what you can do (and what they DID) with the Schultz money.
A trade for a proven veteran wide receiver, like the one for Brandin Cooks, was the best way to upgrade WR2. Despite the Odell Beckham love affair, his list of injuries is piling up, and come week one, it will be over 18 months since he last played.
The other free agent wide receivers were not a definitive nor significant upgrade at WR2.
The wide receiver draft class in 2023 is weak and, as we saw last year in the draft, quality wide receivers might not be there toward the end of the first round.
The big-picture plan of identifying the opportunities both internally and externally at WR/TE to improve the overall pass-catching weapons for Dak was executed to perfection.
As solid as Schultz is, he is not dynamic enough to be the 2nd best receiving option. Bringing him back with Michael Gallup's contract already on the books and CeeDee Lamb's upcoming deal makes it very difficult to make a move for a proven wide receiver, which would likely leave Schultz as the 2nd best option.
Gallup was supposed to be that, and had he been able to produce like the contract he was given, maybe keeping Schultz would have made sense.
With the uncertainty surrounding Gallup and the lack of development of 2022 3rd round pick Jalen Tolbert, upgrading WR2 was far more important than retaining TE1, and moving on from Schultz paved the way to that reality.
Schultz was a damn good player for this franchise, especially given his draft status as a 4th-round pick.
Picking Ferguson last year was a clear sign that the team was looking to move on in 2023 and his development plus that of Hendershot cleared a path to move on with little fear of a total collapse at the position.
Had they not flashed or had Gallup/Tolbert performed as hoped/expected or if this class of tight ends wasn't so stacked, I would have welcomed him back with open arms.
Needless to say, none of that broke in Schultz's favor, so Dallas made the right decision by moving on.
With that being said, I'd like to thank Dalton Schultz for his services. I wish him nothing but good luck and fortune moving forward in his career.