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Cowboys must weigh franchise tag options with Randy Gregory, Dalton Schultz

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FRISCO, Texas -- In the previous two seasons, the Dallas Cowboys' only decision regarding the franchise tag was on Dak Prescott.

The Cowboys used it in 2020 at a cost of $31.4 million for the quarterback. They technically used it again in 2021 at a cost of $37.7 million, but worked out a long-term deal with Prescott that was worth $160 million over four years and included $126 million in guarantees.

The Cowboys' decision regarding a franchise or transition tag this year is a little more unknown.

They have 21 players set to become unrestricted free agents, but there are two true contenders for the tag: defensive end Randy Gregory and tight end Dalton Schultz.

Because of cap constraints and question of value, it is no sure thing the Cowboys will use the tag.

The tag window opens Tuesday and closes March 8, and most teams wait until the end of the time frame to at least give themselves a chance to work out a multiyear deal. If teams don't use the tag on a player, they then have until mid-June to work out a long-term deal or the player has to play the upcoming season on the tag.

While the final numbers are not set, the franchise tag for a defensive end figures to be about $20 million. In 2018, the Cowboys used the franchise tag on DeMarcus Lawrence, who was coming off a 14.5-sack season, at a cost of $17.7 million. They used it again in 2019 at a cost of $20.5 million after Lawrence put up 10 more sacks in 2018 but were able to reach a five-year, $105 million agreement on April 9, 2019.

Gregory tied his career high with six sacks in 2021. The triumvirate of Gregory, Lawrence and Micah Parsons gave the Cowboys their best combination of pressure players in years.

Is that enough to warrant the franchise tag? The Cowboys’ hope is that standing by Gregory through his off-field issues -- violations of the NFL's substance abuse policy that led to multiple suspensions and two full missed seasons -- will help them in securing a favorable long-term deal.

The path to tagging Schultz is a little easier and less costly.

The franchise tag projects to about $11 million for tight ends. The free-agent class is well-stocked, with players like Mike Gesicki, Zach Ertz, David Njoku, O.J. Howard, C.J. Uzomah, Gerald Everett and Evan Engram, among others.

The draft class is filled with more middle-round prospects than high-end prospects.

Schultz, a fourth-round pick in 2018, had 13 catches in his first two seasons. In the past two seasons, he has 141 catches for 1,423 yards and 12 touchdowns. With 78 receptions for 808 yards this past season, he joined Jason Witten as the second tight end in team history with at least 70 catches and 800 yards in a season.

Prescott learned to trust Schultz, and the tight end dropped just two passes last season.

"Dalton has ascended to a consistent piece to what the Cowboys want to do offensively," said former Cowboy and current ESPN analyst Marcus Spears. "He's developed into that safety valve for Dak in critical situations, similar to a trust that Tony Romo had with Jason Witten. Not as prolific but I believe the concept is the same. He's reliable."

Schultz's blocking is more than serviceable. According to Trumedia, Schultz had a run block win rate of 72.9% and a pass block win rate of 93.2%. Compare Schultz's numbers with those of George Kittle, considered one of the best all-around tight ends, who had a run block win rate of 73.7% and a pass block win rate of 97.8%.

"The biggest thing he's done is just be consistent going back to last year," tight ends coach Lunda Wells said during the season. "He's just consistently gotten better with some of the things that we've been trying to be intentional with. His development has been pretty good. I like where we're at with him. He still has some ways to go to be a complete player that we want him to be and to be the complete player he wants to be."

If the Cowboys don't tag Schultz and are unable to sign him, they must add a tight end or two through free agency or the draft. Blake Jarwin has been hurt the past two seasons and the Cowboys can save $4.25 million against the cap if they cut him. The only other tight ends on the roster are Sean McKeon and Ian Bunting, with Jeremy Sprinkle also set to be a free agent.

If Schultz, who turns 26 in July, hits the open market, he could land a deal around $12 million per year or more, considering the New England Patriots paid tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith deals worth $12.5 million per season as free agents last year.

Currently projected to be more than $20 million over the 2022 cap, the Cowboys will have to restructure or cut players just to get under the cap, but they also want to keep as many of their own free agents as possible.

Tagging Schultz, even if it's just for one year, might be their most important move.