With the Kyle Pitts speculation in the rearview for the Dallas Cowboys (as often reported by CBS Sports, they were never going to move up to grab him in the 2021 NFL Draft), all eyes rightfully shift to the incumbent battle at tight end between Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz -- one of the more intriguing as training camp ramps up. With Schultz coming off of a career-best season fueled by the absence of Jarwin, and Jarwin returning from a season-ending torn ACL with the goal of regaining his role as TE1, it has become a matchup to watch in Oxnard, California, and one that will only get more competitive as camp and the preseason rolls along.
Things are nearly as spicy behind the top two tight ends on the depth chart as well with the addition of Jeremy Sprinkle in free agency -- replacing blocking tight end Blake Bell -- battling against Sean McKeon and undrafted rookies Nick Eubanks (Michigan) and Artayvious Lynn (TCU). Lynn has the edge of being a local DFW prospect, but Eubanks has more collegiate experience, more production and hails from a larger program (for those who put a lot of stock in the latter), and Sprinkle is a product of Jerry Jones' beloved alma mater in Fayetteville, Arkansas, (Jones does so love his fellow Razorbacks).
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As for McKeon, a 2020 undrafted free agent, offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and head coach Mike McCarthy like what they have in him, which is why they opted to go heavy at the position in final roster cutdowns last season to avoid risking him to waivers.
He was relegated mostly to special teams as a rookie, but is looking to compete for the less-stressful role of TE3 this time around, versus being tabbed TE4 and narrowly dodging a popped roster bubble. Of course, it goes without saying that the TE3 spot is squarely where Sprinkle is hoping to stick, but his deal with the team is of the one-year variety, and if he is bested by McKeon, Eubanks or Lynn, the Cowboys would only lose $137,500 in signing bonus by releasing him.
This sort of pressure -- on all of the above -- will either create diamonds, burst pipes or a combination of the two.
The lead horse in the race for TE1 is Jarwin, but by a much narrower margin than before he suffered injury. He signed a very team-friendly four-year, $22 million deal in March 2020 and is secured through the 2023 season, but the Cowboys gain cap savings if they rethink holding on to that deal in 2022 ($4.25 million as a pre-June 1 cut and $5.25M as a post-June 1 designation). That makes this another pivotal year for Jarwin, the first being his contract year in 2019, and the sooner he regains form, the better. Now completely healthy for 2021, he's locked and loaded to reaffirm the Cowboys' belief in his playmaking abilities.
The only person that might be happier than Jarwin is Dak Prescott, who is also returning from a season-ending injury.
"It's great [to have him back]," Prescott told media on Sunday. "Blake's one of the many guys that I rehabbed with along the last few months. It's special just knowing that he's back out there as well. My first throw at practice yesterday, sure, it was a walkthrough, but I made sure I threw it to Blake.
"Obviously, I know everything that he's been through: fighting his adversity, fighting his injury and getting back on the field. Special not only for me but for him and for this offense. He's somebody that we're going to count and somebody that we need. He's a big-time player.
"He's going to step up."
Jarwin is literally a record-setting playmaker, having broken a franchise record when Prescott connected with him for three touchdowns in a single game against the New York Giants in a thrilling 36-35 victory at MetLife Stadium in 2018. The two have established a phenomenal chemistry that sees them picking up right where they left off, at least mostly, because Jarwin still has rust to work off after missing all but one game last season.
"It was always kind of the plan to be 100%, body-wise," Jarwin said following his first round of practicing, via the team's website. "Now we'll work our way into getting the reps that we need. Today was a great first step. I've got so much to clean up just from being out for so long, but it feels awesome to be back with the guys. ...
"I stayed through it from the beginning of OTAs. I was hitting it pretty hard, and all through the summer when the guys were off I was up there grinding it out with [trainer Britt Brown]. That was kind of the plan -- to make sure I was ready for [Day 1 of camp]."
And the adoration for reuniting with Prescott is mutual.
"I think we can be one of the best [offenses in the league]," Jarwin added. "I know that our quarterback, our leader of the team,. He's setting a standard that's pretty high for us, and we're going to chase it. It's our job to maintain that standard every day.
"We're excited for it, we're up for the challenge."
That said, and as mentioned earlier, don't go pushing Schultz back to the role of TE2 just yet. In reality, this battle could end up being such a dead heat that when the Cowboys go to an 11 personnel, you'll see one or the other on the field -- between Jarwin and Schultz -- in varying degrees on a week-to-week basis. The biggest plus for Dallas is in how it can now fully unleash the 12 personnel in 2021, one that will see Jarwin and Schultz on the field at the same time in two-TE sets.
"I think you definitely have to utilize your players," said McCarthy when asked about the resurgence of 12 personnel this coming season. "And definitely with Dalton, with his contribution last year, that has been recognized. [Whether it's] 11, 12, 21, 22 [sets] -- you look at the primary personnel groups and normal down and distance, which is going to be our emphasis, normal down and distance and second-and-8 plus, you have to have all of those because unfortunately injuries happen."
It's something McCarthy knows all too well, from both his days with the Green Bay Packers and in his first year with the Cowboys.
"I had an instance in 2010 where [the Packers] had Jermichael Finley," McCarthy recalled. "In 2009 he came on and was such a great matchup for us. We spent the whole offseason with every possible concept and formation that you could possibly do out of 21 personnel, and we lost Jermichael I think in Week 4. We had to adjust and flow.
"Ironically, that ended up being a great year. But it was a lesson learned in offensive installation. It's a long year. My point is, I understand what 11 looks like, I understand the fantasy football numbers out here, how that works. But we've got to be able to play, 11, 12, 21, and 22 in normal [down and distance], and I'm not saying that's the way we're going.
"But you have to have that flexibility and that's why we install by concept. Formation and personnel is second. Because you've got to be able to use all your players."
And, admittedly, the Cowboys were blindsided by the rash of injuries that included losing their best tight end.
"I think last year, 11 was clearly our best personnel group, if you talk about how we wanted to play," added McCarthy. "I think when the investment that we had, particularly first year as a staff, didn't have the offseason to really work together in person. Then with the way the ramp-up went, when we lost Blake, then obviously all those reps that we did have. We had tight ends that we really didn't know much about.
"So obviously three wide receivers was a primary focus for us. But that's not the case this year."
In other words, considering the Cowboys also have Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb (who'll get more exposure in 2021) and Michael Gallup (who's entering a contract year and looks to find his top gear in the offense), opposing defenses will have no clue which offense Dallas will bring to the table on a weekly basis. With so many weapons and potentially dominant personnel combinations at their disposal, if the Cowboys can remain healthy, their No. 1 offense (with Prescott) actually does have a chance to be even more so in 2021.
And that's saying a mouthful, considering Prescott was only 2 yards shy of surpassing Tony Romo for the Cowboys single-season franchise passing record in 2019 -- without Lamb and with Schultz entering as a deer-eyed second-year talent shoehorned behind Jason Witten and Jarwin on the depth chart. But as Schultz enters his contract year (insert more pressure here to level up for a second consecutive season), the needle for the Cowboys offense is pointed due north. What helps that much more is the relationship between Jarwin and Schultz, seeing as it's one more akin to brothers wanting to see each other excel rather than one that sees two guys trying to push one another down to save their job or status on the roster.
"I'm so excited for Blake," Schultz said from Cowboys OTAs. "I love like working alongside a guy that I can really trust. Obviously we got a few years of work together. He is one of the hardest working guys in the locker room, and we kind of pride ourselves on that in our room of being the grinders that will go in day in and day out and do our part. And I'm so excited to see him back on the field.
"ACLs are brutal, especially to go down like that in Game 1. You put so much hard work and time in. ... Dude, I can't wait to see him finally go out and prove to everybody he's as great of a tight end he thinks he is. I'm excited to have that two-headed monster in the room, and hopefully we can take advantage of defenses this year.
"That's kind of who he is and who I am. Considering the circumstance, we have a great friendship and that's only going to continue to evolve. When he got his third touchdown in that Giants game [on Dec. 30, 2018], I was the first one on the sideline hyping him up, and I was like, 'Now, go get another one.' He scored the second one and then I was like, 'One more. Hat trick.'
"Boom, he gets the third. We're boosting each other up whether it's competing on the Peloton bike in the offseason or scoring three touchdowns against the Giants. Our relationship hasn't changed at all."
And nothing indicates it will, as the two headline a group of tight ends that has plenty to fine tune before September. It may not be "The Pitts", but thanks to an improved Schultz and a healthy Jarwin, it's far from being the pits.