Through three games, only five tight ends have more receptions than Dalton Schultz. They’re the names you would expect: Kelce, Waller, Hockenson, Gronkowski, Kittle.
But even though he’s clearly become a reliable safety blanket for Dak Prescott in what is expected to be one of the most prolific offenses in the league, the Cowboys’ fourth-round pick in 2018 doesn’t put himself in the same category as those A-list stars.
“As soon as I consider myself up there, I’m going to retire,” Schultz told reporters this week. “I’m always trying to find somebody to chase, find something to chase. As soon as I get comfortable with putting my name in stuff like that, I need to rethink what I’m doing. I’m always trying to get better.”
Statistically speaking, Schultz has essentially duplicated his 2020 numbers through three outings. But something does look different about Schultz’s game this season. Maybe it’s what he displayed after hauling in a third-down pass at the sticks during Monday night’s matchup with Philadelphia… and then kept right on going.
“As soon as I caught it, I kind of looked inside and I saw the pursuit angles, and I knew. I was like, ‘I just got to get them going upfield.’ I was looking to cut back for, like, 10 yards, and I put my right foot in the ground. I don’t know how the hole opened up the way it did. I literally zoned in. I literally saw the end zone, and I just looked right at the line and said, ‘I’m getting that line.’”
Dalton Schultz, have yourself a night.
80 yards + 2 TDs on the night. YAC on YAC on YAC. Cowboys lead 41-14.pic.twitter.com/ILcSEB3Tx7
— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) September 28, 2021
It’s no longer enough for Schultz to just make the grab. That part is nearly a given for the sure-handed Standford product; he’s got 14 receptions on 15 targets in 2021. But yards after the catch are now a major part of his thought process, too.
“Just a mindset. I just don’t want to go down,” is how he described it. “It also comes with the comfortability after last year. I got the ball more than I have, like, any other season I played. So every time I get the ball, I’m a little more comfortable. The game has definitely slowed down. It just comes a little more naturally now.”
It’s been quite a learning curve for Schultz. Drafted after the sudden retirement of Cowboys legend Jason Witten, Schultz found himself jumping from third-stringer to starter after Geoff Swaim got hurt and Blake Jarwin struggled. Then Witten came back, and Schultz was demoted just as quickly to a backup role. But he used the opportunity to apprentice at the feet of a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer.
He says Witten’s lessons still seep into his mind every single day.
“It’s more in how I emulate my day-to-day,” he explained. “I try to go about my day just like he went about his. Having that year with him was awesome: just to see how he was able to carry himself, how he approached a game plan, how he was able to watch film on these days: your game plan goes in here, here’s what you should watch on Wednesday, here’s how you should approach a Thursday. All that stuff was very helpful for somebody that was going on Year Two in the league… Him coming back ended up being one of the biggest helps to my mindset, and I learned a lot from him. I ended up here and I’m having good success, and I feel like a lot of that may came from that year.”
Schultz’s 2020 numbers were comparable to the stat lines Witten posted in 2005, 2006, 2014, 2016, 2017, and 2019. For what it’s worth, Witten was named to the Pro Bowl in four of those years.
As with Witten on many of those Cowboys rosters, Schultz knows his chances can be limited- but also increase- thanks to an array of offensive weapons around him.
“Pick who you want to guard,” he said, “and the other guys are going to get open as well. I think it’s a big product of who we have here and how many weapons we have. So guys like me and Blake get slid under the radar a little bit, which gives us good [opportunities].”
He’s hoping to get more of those opportunities on Sunday against a 3-0 Carolina squad.
“They’re an aggressive defense,” Schultz commented. “They fly around. A whole lot of effort. They’ve got a lot of playmakers. Obviously, they’ve had some guys go down, but I think they’re a great, talented defense. A lot of speed. Aggressive linebackers. They’re going to pose a good challenge to us, and I know we’re going to pose a good challenge to them, too.”
But with a Cowboys offense that has shown a chameleonesque ability to morph into something new each and every week, Schultz is also aware he may be asked to serve primarily as a blocker, depending on the game plan that gets dialed up. And he’s ready to excel at that part of his job, too.
“That’s kind of what separates the good tight ends from the really great tight ends,” he noted. “They’re able to do both really well. You look at the top tight ends in the game right now: Waller, Kelce, Kittle: those guys all block really well, they’re great after the catch, they’re great getting open. I think that’s just the challenge for everybody else: making sure you can truly do both at all times. Obviously, it helps your offense to have you out there, not knowing whether your guys are going to run, whether you’re going to pass. Being the most versatile you can be is definitely a good trait and a needed trait to have as a tight end in this league.”
From a year spent under Witten’s tutelage to attending this summer’s Tight End U- where he workshopped right alongside Kittle and Kelce- Schultz is surrounding himself with all the right guys to model himself after. And his name only figures to be mentioned among those greats a lot more often.