One of the marquee free agents for the Cowboys in 2022 is starting Tight End Dalton Schultz. But while Schultz is coming off a career year and has been one of the NFL's most productive TEs the last two seasons, should he really be a priority free agent for Dallas this offseason?
This is not an easy article to write as it's going to sound very critical of a good player. But this isn't really a criticism of Schultz; more of a reality check of how much he has contributed to the offense and what his true value to the team is in a critical offseason.
From a purely number-driven analysis Dalton has been great! He was third in catches, sixth in yards, and fifth in touchdowns among all tight ends in 2021. If not for having George Kittle, Kyle Pitts, and Rob Gronkowski to compete with in the NFC, Schultz's numbers were Pro Bowl-worthy in most years for his position.
One of Dalton's best statistical compliments is efficiency. He was only sixth in targets, making his high receiving totals even more impressive compered to some peers.
On paper, this highly-productive TE seems like a guy Dallas should be desperate to keep. And in a different offseason without the salary cap strangling them, the Cowboys could feel perfectly comfortable about giving Schultz a big, new contract or even the franchise tag.
But given their cap constraints and the issues across the roster at WR, LG, DE, LB, and more the Cowboys just can't afford to throw money around. They have to look for places to save wherever they can get them, and one could argue that TE presents such an opportunity.
This requires you to look past the stats and focus more on “the eye test.” Is Dalton Schultz a special talent at his position, or is he a guy who's put up big numbers as a beneficiary of the NFL's number-one offense last season?
Ask yourself, “When has Schultz made a play that made me jump from my seat? When has his individual talent made the difference in a play, versus just being open and enjoying a mismatch thanks to scheme and surrounding talent?”
“Would it really be that hard to replace him?”
While they're likely losing one of them, either Amari Cooper or Michael Gallup should be back in 2022. So will CeeDee Lamb and probably Cedrick Wilson or a comparable free agent to fill the WR3 role. You'll also still have Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard at RB, hopefully an improved offensive line, and Dak Prescott still running the show.
This offense should still be able to produce at a similar level next season. The burden is on the coaches and front office to determine if Dalton Schultz was a cause or an effect factor of its proficiency the last two years.
This question is especially important given the slew of replacement options available. Not only is the 2022 Draft class loaded at TE but the list of potential veteran free agents is also massive:
- Jared Cook, Chargers
- Hayden Hurst, Falcons
- Evan Engram, Giants
- Zach Ertz, Cardinals
- Mike Gesicki, Dolphins
- Rob Gronkowski, Bucs
- O.J. Howard, Bucs
- David Njoku, Browns
- C.J. Uzomah, Bengals
- Maxx Williams, Cardinals
And many more….
This list presents a wide array of intriguing options. And while some guys like Mike Gesicki will likely command more than Dallas wants to spend, what about former 1st-Round picks like O.J. Howard, Hayden Hurst, or David Njoku who could blossom in another offense?
Remember, Dalton Schultz was only a 4th-Round pick himself. In fact, he was in the same draft class when Hurst was taken by Atlanta. Four years ago, Hayden was unanimously seen a superior prospect.
Of course, where you were drafted is never as important as what you prove in the NFL. But you also have to compare opportunities and environments that allowed some players to succeed more than others.
It's not like Schultz hit the ground running in the NFL. He was buried as a rookie behind Geoff Swaim and Jarwin, then again in 2019 for the Jason Witten Farewell Tour. In fact, some wondered if Dalton would even make the roster the following year.
Would Schultz even be Dallas' top tight end today if Blake Jarwin hadn't blown his ACL in Week 1 of 2020?
That's the scariest part of this whole dilemma for me. Would Dalton Schultz even be a starter in the NFL if not for Jarwin's injury? It's great he finally got a chance to prove himself, but this guy never forced the coaches to put him on the field with his perceived potential. Only circumstances forced their hand, and thankfully Dalton delivered when needed.
Is that enough to deserve an $11 million franchise tag or a contract paying him among the best tight ends in football? Could the Cowboys pay a veteran half that, or even less, and get similar numbers? Could they roll the dice on a guy like O.J. Howard and perhaps unlock what Tampa Bay failed to?
This is when the best front offices make those tough decisions that ultimately improve the team. This is when a team like New England doesn't reward a guy for the past and focuses on the future, and takes a hard look at whether or not the “moneyball” approach would yield similar results at a fraction of the cost.
Dalton Schultz is a good tight end. He deserves to start in this league.
But at what price? And at what risk to limiting your resources at other parts of the roster?
The Dallas Cowboys need to be very, very sure that Schultz is reason for their offensive prowess and not a beneficiary of it. Otherwise, his next contract may be another you're complaining about in a couple years.