Cowboys want homegrown players like Dalton Schultz but struggled to get deals – Dallas Cowboys Blog
FRISCO, Texas — Negotiations between the Dallas Cowboys and tight end Dalton Schultz so far have been cordial if not overly productive.
After skipping the last week of voluntarily organized team activities, Schultz attended Tuesday’s mandatory minicamp as the clock approaches July 15, when teams must either agree to a multi-year deal or he can start the season with the 10.9 million Dollar Franchise Tag will play .
While the Schultz situation might not be the perfect case study, it does speak to a question the Cowboys have been trying to answer: Why couldn’t they re-sign their own players for early overtime?
Schultz conforms to the Cowboys’ stated desire to keep their own rather than play in the deep end of the free agency pool. Over the past two years, the 2019 fourth-round pick has caught 141 passes for 1,423 yards and 12 touchdowns. Last season, he joined Jason Witten as the only tight end in franchise history with at least 75 receptions for 800 yards and eight touchdowns in a single season.
But he caught 13 passes in his first two seasons, so there was no point in going through with a long-term offer. Additionally, a team that has traditionally been aggressive in pursuing long-term deals with its own players has begun to sit back.
Executive Vice President Stephen Jones attributes that to a number of factors: uncertainty surrounding the collective bargaining agreement, media deals and the pandemic. The Cowboys also had to negotiate with quarterback Dak Prescott, which resulted in a four-year, $160 million contract.
“This time last year, I don’t know if we knew we were going to have full stadiums or not,” Jones said. “If we didn’t have full stadiums, that would have a huge impact on the salary cap. Now it looks like things are going back to business as usual.”
Considering he made just over $4.4 million in his first four years, that’s $10.9 million a day for Schultz. But he sees what the Cleveland Browns paid their franchise tight end David Njoku (four years, $57 million, $28 million guaranteed).
Without a middle ground agreement, in 2023 the Cowboys can simply reuse the franchise tag for Schultz and pay him just over $13 million should he produce for a third straight season. Or they could choose to walk away and let him test the free hand while hoping this year’s fourth-round pick Jake Ferguson can take on and add another tight end through the draft or free hand.
“The importance of the second contract that every GM and every capman in this league is trying to fulfill is the ability to get second contracts,” said coach Mike McCarthy. “You get to a point in a man’s career — 26, 27 years old — where they’re in their physical prime.”
There was a time when the cowboys didn’t sweat making deals like this.
In his prime, Witten never came close to hitting the open market. Neither CB Terence Newman, DE DeMarcus Ware nor QB Tony Romo. The Cowboys later worked out deals with the likes of OT Tyron Smith (2014), C. Travis Frederick (2016), OG Zack Martin (2018), and OL La’el Collins (2017, 2019).
While cash layouts were favorable to the player and paid at or near the top of the market, the Cowboys were able to hold longer contracts, allowing them some salary cap flexibility by restructuring those contracts multiple times. In 2014, Smith signed an eight-year extension that tied him to the Cowboys through 2023.
“You’ve seen other teams shorten terms more now than they have in the past,” said an agent who has dealt with the Cowboys on many multi-year contracts. “You don’t want to do it like that.”
Jones acknowledged that the length of the deals has been an advantage for the Cowboys, who have leaned more on the label in recent years.
In 2018 and 2019, defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence played on the franchise tag before they eventually signed him to a five-year, $105 million deal that included $65 million in guaranteed money.
Prescott waited (2019) and waited (2020) before getting the deal he wanted and $126 million guaranteed. The Cowboys thought they were close to a deal early in the 2019 season, but it never materialized. Prescott played the 2020 season with a $31.4 million franchise tag, and even after suffering a compound fracture and dislocation of his ankle that season, he was able to obtain the desired contract structure that would allow him to theoretically to come onto the market at 30 years old.
Prescott wanted a four-year contract. The Cowboys wanted at least five. In the end, Prescott signed a six-year contract, which lapsed to four years. Even with the new media contracts’ salary cap hikes looming over the next few seasons, the Cowboys could look to extend Prescott’s contract by giving him more guaranteed money while lowering their annual quarterback cap.
Patience is a difficult thing for players who want a big payday.
“It just lingers there,” Martin said. “You just think about it a lot. When you’re ready for your contract and you know they’re talking and discussing it, it’s hard not to think about it a lot.”
Risk is not eliminated by signing players for lucrative contract renewals before their contracts expire.
Running back Ezekiel Elliott held out from training camp in 2019 before signing a six-year, $90 million extension that included $50 million in guaranteed money. But Elliott’s production has declined over the past two years, although last year’s drop may be related to a partial cruciate ligament rupture in his right knee, which he sustained earlier in the season.
The Cowboys also signed Collins and linebacker Jaylon Smith to lucrative extensions. But Collins missed the 2020 season with a hip injury and was suspended for five games in 2021 for violating a substance abuse policy. With the guaranteed money in his deal voided, he was fired this offseason and expects to cap at $4.9 million this year. Meanwhile, Smith failed to reach the same level as in 2018 and was dropped four games into the season last year. He’s still counting $6.8 million against the cap this season.
“I think the deals for Zeke and Jaylon really freaked her out,” the agent said.
“You won’t hit everyone,” Jones said. “I don’t know anyone who has. But you have to hope you’re right a lot more than you’re wrong.”
Who is next for the cowboys and what is the cost? After this season, receiver CeeDee Lamb and cornerback Trevon Diggs are eligible for contract extensions for the first time, although the Cowboys may give Lamb a fifth-year option for 2024, buying her a year but also potentially increasing costs if Lamb succeeds in her Recipient #1.
During this offseason, wide receivers Tyreek Hill, Davante Adams, Cooper Kupp and AJ Brown signed overtime contracts averaging at least $25 million per season.
Diggs is coming off a season with 11 interceptions, the most by a Cowboy since 1981. A second-round pick in 2020, he is scheduled to be a free agent after the 2023 season. The Cowboys could use the franchise tag on him or sign him to a long-term contract.
Three cornerbacks — Jaire Alexander, Denzel Ward, and Jalen Ramsey — are currently making at least $20 million a season. Alexander has five career interceptions; Ward has 10 and Ramsey has 15. Diggs has 14 in his first two seasons.
“Contracts made always have an impact,” Jones said. “That’s a fact. To what extent, that varies, but always when a contract is made [elsewhere], it is considered and can affect how you rate a player. … That’s the nature of a cap.”
Having players they want to keep is a good thing.
“Better hope you have that kind of ‘problem’ because if you don’t, you’re going to have to go freelance,” Jones said. “When you draw right, you beg for that kind of success.”
Incidentally, Micah Parsons is eligible for an extension after the 2023 season.
How much will that cost?