After skipping the final week of voluntary organized team activities, Schultz participated in the mandatory minicamp Tuesday as the clock ticks toward July 15, when the sides either have to agree to a multiyear deal, or he will play the season on the $10.9 million franchise tag.
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 haven’t they been able to re-sign their own players to early extensions?
Schultz falls in line with the Cowboys’ stated desire of keeping their own rather than playing in the deep end of the free-agency pool. In 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 ends in franchise history with at least 75 receptions for 800 yards and eight touchdowns in a single season.
But in his first two seasons, he caught 13 passes, so it didn’t make sense to try to get ahead with a long-term offer. Further, a team that had 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 regarding the collective bargaining agreement, media contracts and the pandemic. The Cowboys also had to work through negotiations with quarterback Dak Prescott that resulted in a four-year, $160 million deal.
“At this time last year, I don’t know if we knew we’d have full stadiums or not,” Jones said. “If we didn’t have full stadiums, that’s a tremendous impact on the salary cap. Now it looks like it’s back to business as usual.”
Considering he made a little more than $4.4 million in his first four years, the $10.9 million tag represents security for Schultz. But he sees what the Cleveland Browns paid their franchise-tagged tight end David Njoku (four years, $57 million, $28 million guaranteed).
Without a middle-ground agreement, the Cowboys can simply use the franchise tag on Schultz again in 2023 and pay him a little more than $13 million should he produce for a third straight season. Or they could opt to walk away and let him test free agency while hoping this year’s fourth-round pick Jake Ferguson can take over and add another tight end through the draft or free agency.
“The importance of the second contract, which every GM and every cap guy in this league is trying to get done, the ability to get second contracts is important,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “You’re getting into a point in a guy’s career -- 26, 27 years old -- where they’re in their physical prime.”
There was a time the Cowboys didn’t sweat getting these types of deals done.
Witten never came close to hitting the open market in his prime years. Neither did CB Terence Newman, DE DeMarcus Ware or QB Tony Romo. Later on, the Cowboys 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 the cash layouts were favorable to the player, paying at the top or near the top of the market, the Cowboys were able to get longer contracts, which allowed 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 that have gone shorter on the terms more now than they have in the past,” said one agent who has dealt with the Cowboys on many multiyear deals. “They don’t want to do it that way.”
Jones acknowledged the length of deals was a benefit for the Cowboys, who have leaned on the tag more in recent years.
In 2018 and 2019, defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence played on the franchise tag before they ultimately 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 desired and $126 million guaranteed. The Cowboys thought they were close to a deal at the start of the 2019 season, but it never happened. Prescott played the 2020 season on the $31.4 million franchise tag, and even after suffering a compound fracture and dislocation of his ankle that season, he was able to get the contract structure he wanted that would allow him to theoretically hit the market when he is 30 years old.
Prescott wanted a four-year deal. The Cowboys wanted at least five. In the end, Prescott signed a six-year deal that voided to four years. Even with the impending increase of the salary cap with the new media deals over the next few seasons, the Cowboys could look to extend Prescott’s contract by giving him more guaranteed money while lowering their year-over-year cap allocation to the quarterback.
Patience is a difficult thing for players wanting a big payday.
“It just kind of lingers there,” Martin said. “You’re just thinking about it a lot. When you’re up for your contract and you know they’re talking about it and discussing it, it’s hard not to think about it a lot.”
Risk is not eliminated by signing players to lucrative extensions before contracts expire.
Running back Ezekiel Elliott held out of training camp in 2019 before signing a six-year, $90 million extension that included $50 million in guaranteed money. But Elliott’s production has dropped the past two years, although last year’s drop can be tied to a partially torn PCL in his right knee he suffered early 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 five games in 2021 for violating the substance-abuse policy. With the guaranteed money voided in his deal, he was released this offseason and counts $4.9 million against this year’s cap. Meanwhile, Smith failed to perform at the same level he did in 2018 and was cut last year four games into the season. He still counts $6.8 million against the cap this season.
“I think the deals for Zeke and Jaylon have really freaked them out,” the agent said.
“You’re not going to hit on them all,” Jones said. “I don’t know anyone who has. But you’ve got to hope you’re right a lot more than you’re wrong.”
Who's next for the Cowboys and what's the cost? After this season, receiver CeeDee Lamb and cornerback Trevon Diggs are eligible for contract extensions for the first time, although the Cowboys can put the fifth-year option on Lamb for 2024, buying them a year but also potentially raising the cost if Lamb succeeds as their No. 1 receiver.
Diggs is coming off an 11-interception season, the most by a Cowboy since 1981. A second-round pick in 2020, he is set to be a free agent after the 2023 season. The Cowboys could use the franchise tag on him or they could sign him to a long-term deal.
Three cornerbacks -- Jaire Alexander, Denzel Ward and Jalen Ramsey -- currently make 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.
“There’s always an impact from contracts that get done,” Jones said. “That’s a fact. To what degree, that’s different, but anytime a contract gets done [elsewhere], it’s looked at and can affect how you value a player. ... That’s the nature of having a cap.”
Having players they want to keep is a good thing.
“You better hope you have that kind of ‘problem,’ because if you’re not, then you have to go in on free agency,” Jones said. “If you’re drafting the right way, you’re begging for that kind of success.”
By the way, Micah Parsons is eligible for an extension after the 2023 season.
How much will that cost?