Jerry Jones once told me, “You know one thing that makes the NFL so popular is the great stories and drama it creates year-round.”
No stranger to the occasional tumult publicly or personally, the Dallas Cowboys owner might be surprised to learn where the drama played out this summer in Oxnard at training camp.
It was not supposed to be this way. Not these guys. Not in this room.
The three tight ends returning from the 2022 season—Sean McKeon, Jake Ferguson, and Peyton Hendershot—have been joined by Luke Schoonmaker, the Cowboys’ second-round draft pick from the University of Michigan. The three returning guys all could run, catch, and block. McKeon was considered the best blocker, Hendershot the best at running routes, and Ferguson solid in all aspects of the game and picked by Pro Football Focus as the team’s top breakout candidate. With the arrival of Schoonmaker came the group moniker the “Four Horsemen,” along with apparent confidence in the building that the free-agency loss of Dalton Schultz was not critical. After all, Ferguson remained in waiting and had played in 37 percent of all 2022 snaps, Hendershot had been there for 26 percent, and Sean McKeon managed 11 percent. They combined for 43 catches and four touchdowns, not far off of Schultz’s 57 catches and five touchdowns.
The addition of Schoonmaker created nothing but more mirth in what some referred to as the Big Ten Room, since all the major players were graduates of Indiana, Wisconsin, or Michigan.
“We take great pride in the Big Ten Room and think the Big Ten just breeds the best tight ends,” says 25-year-old Sean McKeon. “We are all-around guys—blockers and pass catchers.“
There were no worries even when a partial tear to Schoonmaker’s plantar fasciitis put him out of almost every drill and on the non-football injury list (NFI). Now some of the early thinking was that the Cowboys might be able to continue with the young Michigan grad on the NFI. Then, on cut day—August 29—they could expose lesser fry, like a backup lineman or marginal receiver to the waiver wire, then simply re-sign the waived ones the next day. It is a charade game played all over the league.
Big Luke sent that sort of early thinking straight to hell. One day, he was performing only individual work. The next day he was in full armor and ready to participate in practice even on special teams plays. On Schoonmaker’s first day back, he really looked good. So did another guy, an undrafted free agent, not from the Big Ten but little Louisiana-Lafayette. He was a 6-foot-5, 254-pound mesomorph named John Stephens Jr. Now there were five names in the mix to replace one, which is hardly the sort of thing Dallas is used to at tight end after 16 years of Jason Witten and then three of Schultz.
So, who are these guys?
Let’s start with the name you won’t see again until next season, Stephens.
Originally a TCU Horned Frog, Stephens made barely a ripple in Fort Worth, snagging just 14 passes for 214 yards over three years. Most of his playing time came as a sophomore. After transferring and becoming a Ragin’ Cajun, his catches averaged just a bit more than one a game. (They did go for big yards: he averaged almost 17 yards per catch.)
Cowboys’ tight end coach Lunda Wells, however, saw qualities he really liked.
“The biggest thing I was noticing when evaluating him was his size, speed, and toughness,” Wells says. “He was just, you know, a bit too slow to be a wide receiver.”
One can certainly argue about Stephens’ chances of making the team. You cannot, however, argue about his pedigree. His father, John Sr., was a first-round pick of the New England Patriots, where he ran for more than 1,100 yards as a rookie and was selected to the Pro Bowl. Senior played in the pros for six years with stints in Green Bay and Kansas City. He was married to All-American swimmer Sybil Smith, the first-ever Black All-American swimmer. Their daughter, tennis great Sloane Stephens, went on to win the U.S. Open and remains a WTA top-40 player.
But bloodlines will get someone only so far, especially when changing positions. To that end, Wells is adamant about what comes first for Stephens on the football field: “Three-point stance. Three-point stance. That’s what I have been telling him from day one. And getting him used to playing in close quarters.”
There was talk that the club might want to hide Stephens and not expose his talents to other clubs this summer. That strategy was apparently ditched in the first preseason contest when he participated in 38 percent of offensive plays, catching five passes for 56 yards and a touchdown. He was also in for six special-teams plays. Chatter percolated about whether an undrafted player still learning the finer points of his position could bump a member of the Big Ten Room—likely McKeon—off the roster.
Then tragedy struck in the third quarter of the second preseason game against Seattle, when Stephens went down with a torn ACL. His chances of becoming a Cowboy are now at least a year away.
If Stephens is the rage of this year’s camp, a year ago it was Peyton Hendershot.
The Hendershot family is extremely tight and, can we say, uh, exuberant. Between the boys wrestling and throwing footballs and other objects at one another, their mother, Jennifer, has been forced to take all the living room pictures down from the walls.
In Indiana, where basketball is king, Hendershot, as a high schooler, was often the best player on the floor for the Tri-West Bruins. As a high school senior, he led the team in rebounds and assists while finishing second in scoring. In one game, he drove down the lane and dunked over two defenders. He was fouled, missed the free throw, and got his own rebound just to step back to swish a three-pointer.
But football remained Hendershot’s first love, and when Indiana, the family’s favorite university, came calling, he was recruited as a defensive end after posting staggering numbers for the Bruins in tackles, sacks, tackles for loss, and pass breakups.
Hendershot signed with the Hoosiers and found his home at tight end, where he’d set school records for receptions and receiving yards at the position. Still, he went unselected in the 2022 NFL Draft. Perhaps the blame can be attributed to too much football.
“I actually played in two bowl games, which was a bad idea because I didn’t have much time to train for the combine,” Hendershot says.
The Cowboys quickly signed him with a bonus and three-year contract that averages about $860,000 per year. It proved to be money well spent last season, as Hendershot put some strong moments on film, none more enjoyable than his touchdown on Thanksgiving Day and the ensuing Whac-a-Mole celebration with his fellow tight ends in the Salvation Army kettle.
This year, Hendershot expects to see the tight end position as “receiver by committee.” Now he just has to find out who remains a committee member.
Hendershot and fellow second-year tight end Jake Ferguson are the best of friends. And if there’s a favorite to consolidate that committee into something smaller, it’s Ferguson, the likely starter at the position.
In Oxnard, he lined up with the first team out of the gate. Dak Prescott has recently howled accolades his way. There’s a reason the 24-year-old joined 26 other veterans—mostly starters—in not participating in the second preseason match. Ferguson is now a stacked and mobile 6-foot-5 244-pounder.
It was not always so. In 2017, he arrived at the University of Wisconsin weighing a slim 195 pounds. Immediately, he was told he needed to get up to 240. Incredulous, Ferguson asked how exactly he was supposed to make that happen. They responded, Ferguson says, “The Wisconsin way: beer and pizza.”
Ferguson followed that dietary plan diligently, so well that by his redshirt sophomore year, he had ballooned up to around 260 pounds. ”That was not good,” he says. “I had to cut back on the beer and pizza.”
He dropped 15 pounds and steadily grew his role in the Badger offense, culminating in being named All Big-Ten as a redshirt senior in 2021. His athleticism stood out at a traditionally ground-and-pound program; he played every skill position in high school except cornerback and safety, and at a summer Nike camp, he once leaped over a kneeling person for a slam dunk. (“Just barely,” he’s quick to note.)
His high school coach, Adam Scott, says that even before his great growth spurt, one thing that remained the same was that Ferguson “would like to destroy you when he was playing defense, and he liked the middle linebacker spot where the offense could not run away from him.”
Such grit is helpful in training camp goal line situations where more plays are directed at the tight ends, sometimes even requiring their 14 personnel—one running back and four tight ends.
“That’s right,” Ferguson says. “I mean, who would you rather have in the trenches than a bunch of tight ends?”
One of those players you might expect to find in the trenches is four-year veteran McKeon. He has carved out a career in the NFL thanks to blocking, but he saw a bunch of balls hurled his way in Oxnard and has had an excellent preseason.
“I am always trying to expand my role,” McKeon says. “The goal is to be a complete tight end at the end of the day.”
In past seasons, McKeon could be seen lined up at fullback or H-back in some short-yardage situations, a position he is keen on.
“Definitely, when we go to the goal line, we could be in 14, and that is kind of our calling card,” McKeon says. “We take great pride in that and not to be denied at the goal line, always trying to punch it in.”
All of the tight ends on the Cowboys roster are willing blockers. How much better McKeon is in the hardnosed blocking than the rest may determine his football fate, as he owns just six career receptions.
If McKeon can’t find his way back onto the roster for a fifth season in Dallas, it may be because of a familiar face: the rookie Schoonmaker, whom McKeon played with for two seasons at Michigan.
“I learned a lot from him,” Schoonmaker says. “It’s just the best. I get so happy every time I see him in the meeting room. He’s just a great guy, and I feel grateful and lucky. It’s nice to reunite with a guy that can play like that.”
There was controversy when the Cowboys made Schoonmaker the 58th overall pick in April. Schoonmaker will turn 25 this fall. He’s a bit older because he repeated his junior year of high school after a double whammy of mononucleosis and a ruptured spleen, and he spent an extra year at Michigan by accepting a COVID waiver. That relatively advanced age led to questions about where his ceiling is at the NFL level. And then there is the shoulder injury that limited him late in the season and flared up again, forcing him to miss most of the Wolverines’ College Football Playoff game against TCU, although the injury did not need surgery and he says the shoulder is feeling fine these days.
But there is certainly no question about his athleticism: per draft analyst Kent Lee Platte, Schoonmaker’s Relative Athletic Score, which judges a player’s athletic traits in relation to others in the same position group entering the draft, was the 16th-best for a tight end dating back to 1987. So while it may take time for him to get up to speed, he possesses the raw traits to give this offense a different dimension down the road.
Add it up and, Wells says, “This is probably the most talented room I have had.”
Yet he professes to play little role in the final decision once cut day arrives.
“Honestly, I tell these guys all the time, even at the start of OTAs, that they gotta jump off the grass,” he says. “You cannot blend in with the grass because the grass is what gets cut. That being said, when it comes down to cutting time, I tell them I don’t do any cuts. You guys decide your role based upon what you do between the white lines.”
One other factor is how much head coach McCarthy fancies a fullback in his offense. Hunter Luepke, an undrafted free agent from North Dakota State, has shown that he is certainly an enthusiastic blocker with good hands. There has been talk that if he remains with the team, he could also be instrumental in the H-back position and even move over to the tight end position. That could spell trouble for McKeon, in particular.
But despite some media predictions that the team will keep only three tight ends, practicing with as many as four at the goal line points to the Cowboys keeping that many around heading into the season opener against the Giants.
From there, it’s a matter of separation. Will anyone emerge from the pack? Whatever happens, Ferguson insists it won’t change the makeup of a tight-knit room.
“We are close,” he says. “Yes, we are competing against each other every day, but it is still a brotherhood amongst us. We want each other to do well.”
And after nearly two decades of watching only one Cowboys tight end flourish at a time, we might see many do so this season.