OXNARD, Calif. — Dalton Schultz was thrust into the starting job in Week 1 of 2020.
Blake Jarwin won the starting tight end position for the Dallas Cowboys, but was lost with a torn ACL in the season opener at the Los Angeles Rams. Schultz took over for the next 15 and a half games, providing Dallas with 63 catches for 615 yards and four touchdowns.
Schultz isn't merely content with his numbers in 2020 as a pass-catcher. With Jarwin recovered from the knee injury, Schultz has to battle to keep the starting job, and it will rely on more than just hauling in passes from quarterback Dak Prescott.
"I focused on blocking, run technique, pass footwork, lot of route stuff," Schultz said. "Obviously I think that’s the easiest one you could do in the offseason is just running routes, especially with your quarterbacks. I didn't want to be like ‘I want to focus on this.’ As a tight end, you’re asked to do everything and you always have to improve every part and facet to your game. I try to be the most well-rounded player I can be."
Coach Mike McCarthy says the work that Schultz has put into the offseason is evident, and his play over the last year was the necessary answer to a question that has plagued the Cowboys' personnel department for the past five seasons: who can take over for Jason Witten?
"Dalton raised the bar in the tight end room," McCarthy said. "Anytime you have a Hall-of-Fame player that retires and the year after you want to see how that room responds. And I think our tight end room — Ben Bloom did a great job in there. But I just love the whole operation of the tight end room. And Dalton gets a lot of credit for it."
A cynic would say that Schultz is also giving maximum effort because the former 2018 fourth-round pick is entering a contract year. However, even if Schultz had a lifetime contract with the Cowboys, his preparation and diligence to his craft would remain the same.
Said Schultz: "I’m focused on training camp, focused on the season. That to me is a byproduct of the work you put in and I think if you start getting worried about all that stuff, you’ll start to falter in your process. So that’s far out of my mind."
Incidentally, the current quarterbacks coach, Doug Nussmeier, helped Schultz acclimate to the league. From 2018-19, Nussmeier was actually the tight ends coach during the last two years of the Jason Garrett era, and he brought the quarterback's perspective to the position, which helped Schultz find his touchstones for development.
"You could tell he was a quarterback mind, he understood the grand scheme of things so I see a lot of what he’s teaching quarterbacks in the way he taught us certain patterns and schemes so I think it does help for sure," said Schultz.
McCarthy says that he can see the culmination of all of the work Schultz has put in throughout his career.
"He's very precise on how he runs his routes," McCarthy said. "He's very easy to read when you see a quarterback, especially the tight ends, when you see quarterbacks and tight ends connect, it's the tight ends that you can throw to with the same anticipation as a receiver and that's so important because obviously a bigger target in the middle of the field, obviously the mathematics of that gives you an opportunity to increase your completion percentage."
The Cowboys could use a tight end threatening the middle of the field with wideouts Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and CeeDee Lamb expected to make a big impact with the return of Prescott. With Schultz entering the all-crucial contract year, it may come together for him and pay big dividends for Dallas in the fall and Schultz in the offseason.
Who do you think will make the most receptions among tight ends for the Cowboys in 2021? Make your predictions to Mark on Twitter @therealmarklane.