Cowboys salary cap issues could ruin chances of Dalton Schultz franchise tag

Unless you have been living under a rock, you probably know by now that the Dallas Cowboys are very much in the red when it comes to salary cap space… $21 million over the cap, to be exact.

In an offseason where 24 players are expected to hit free agency, cap concerns are the last thing Jerry Jones and the front office need. The Joneses have all admitted that they will have difficult decisions to make in the coming weeks with free agents and cuts.

One player who is going to make their lives particularly difficult is tight end Dalton Schultz.

A former fourth-round pick in 2018, Schultz went from a benchwarmer to a breakout year in 2021. After Blake Jarwin injured himself again, Schultz stepped up to the plate and became a reliable target for quarterback Dak Prescott. Schultz had 78 receptions for 808 yards in 2021, which made him only the second Cowboys tight end in franchise history to have over 70 receptions and 800 yards in a season. The other was Jason Witten.

Now, this is/was good and bad news for Dallas. It was great that Schultz had an outstanding year. It’s bad because he has earned himself a much higher contract than the Cowboys likely expected for him. Because of his young age, clear potential, and experience with Prescott, many believed Schultz would be a great candidate for the franchise tag. A franchise tag is a one-year contract that can be used by any team to keep an unrestricted free agent from hitting the market. Ideally, the use of the tag buys a franchise more time to reach a long-term contract with that free agent. Franchise tag rates are set by player positions and clubs often try to get longer contracts signed in order to avoid spending big money on a one-year deal.

However, because the Cowboys are the third-worst in the NFL in terms of cap space, there are many reports that they cannot or won’t use the franchise tag on Schultz. Dallas needs that $10.9 million to pay for other contracts and sign free agents. For context, the franchise tag window opened Tuesday morning and will close on March 8. According to Todd Archer of ESPN, if the Cowboys use the tag on Schultz, they will have until mid-June to put together a long-term deal or he will have to play under the tag.

Dallas Cowboys may not be able to use the franchise tag on tight end Dalton Schultz, likely due to salary cap issues

In the past two years, Prescott has been the only person to receive the franchise tag in Dallas… yet another not-so-brilliant move by the front office. In 2020, it cost the Cowboys $31.4 million to keep Prescott around. They technically had him on the tag again in 2021, but his long-term deal was worth more than the $37.7 million he would have made on the tag.

All of this is to say that the Cowboys have put themselves in a difficult place. The reality is that if Schultz hits the open market, according to Spotrac, he could sign a deal for over $12 million a year. There are plenty of teams who would be thrilled to get a high-performing, young tight end on their roster.

If the Cowboys are unable to keep Schultz, it is imperative that they sign another tight end in free agency or add one through the draft. Jarwin is incredibly injury-prone but is still under contract. There are several excellent free-agent tight end candidates, but as we know, there are many Dallas can’t afford. Getting a tight end in the draft is possible, but it might result in a player who isn’t ready for the bright lights of the NFL in 2022.

Dallas has many players on their free-agent list that they would love to keep, but even with some tricky money maneuvers, they still won’t be able to keep them all. It will be very interesting to see what happens to this roster in the next several weeks.