Cowboys' Jake Ferguson 'not even scratching my surface'

Dallas Cowboys tight end Jake Ferguson reeled in 71 of 102 targets for 761 yards and five touchdowns in 2023. Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

FRISCO, Texas -- A year ago, Jake Ferguson was something of an unknown.

As a rookie tight end for the Dallas Cowboys in 2022, he caught 19 passes for 174 yards and two touchdowns. So unsure were the Cowboys about what he could be that they selected Luke Schoonmaker in the second round.

Now, as Ferguson enters his third season, he is without a doubt the Cowboys' top tight end. In 2023, he caught 71 passes for 761 yards and five touchdowns and was named to the Pro Bowl.

"To me, I think I'm not even scratching my surface," Ferguson said. "There's so many things that I want to get better at and I know I can get better at. We watch film every day of different games, even the practices we're doing now and I'm like, 'OK, I can get a lot better still.'"

Tight ends coach Lunda Wells tells his players to shoot for perfection and achieve excellence. Ferguson has taken part in the Tight End University program led by Greg Olsen, George Kittle and Travis Kelce. Wells mentioned 1,000 receiving yards and improving his blocking as goals for Ferguson.

"The great ones play consistently on a high level every year throughout their careers," Wells said. "The [Jason] Wittens of the world. The Kelces of the world, so you want to be able to chase that consistency and play great every year. I think that might be one of the things he's focusing on, 'Hey, anybody can do it one year, but can I do it every year?'"

Ferguson's jump is reminiscent of what Witten did from his rookie year in 2003 to 2004. Like Ferguson, his receptions increased by 52 from 35 as a rookie to 87 in Year 2. Like Ferguson, he was named to the Pro Bowl after finishing with 980 yards and six touchdowns.

Early in Witten's third offseason, he was approached by coach Bill Parcells, tight ends coach Tony Sparano and passing game coordinator Sean Payton.

"They looked at me and said, 'Great year. But now can you do it again?'" Witten remembered. "I think that would be the challenge [for Ferguson] to put the work in."

Ferguson has been at The Star almost daily in the offseason. He is trying to add a little more bulk to his 252-pound frame to help in the run game. When Dak Prescott has throwing sessions away from the facility, he is there.

After his first Pro Bowl selection, Witten would earn the spot in nine of the next 10 seasons. In his 16 years with the Cowboys he became the franchise's all-time leader in receptions and yards. If Ferguson needed any other reminder of what he is chasing, a giant mural of a helmetless Witten running with the ball hangs from the wall just outside the locker room.

"I think he can do it all," Witten said of Ferguson. "He's a willing blocker. He can bend. ... Looks like he's smart. He's got great chemistry with Dak. Good charisma. He can run. He understands separation. So I think now seeing himself do it, here's where the growth comes."

In his 13-year run with the Green Bay Packers, coach Mike McCarthy never had a tight end catch more than 61 passes (Jermichael Finley, 2012) or gain more than 767 yards (Finley, 2011). In McCarthy's four seasons as the Cowboys' coach, their leading tight end caught at least 57 passes each year (Dalton Schultz had 63, 78 and 57 from 2020 to 2022; Ferguson 71 in 2023).

Some of it is the structure of each offense. The Packers relied more on their wide receivers for pass-game production with quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Prescott has relied heavily on tight ends, like Witten, Schultz and Ferguson, since he became the starter in 2016.

"Jake has so much more to give," McCarthy said.

Prescott agrees.

"Obviously you see the jump he made from Year 1 to Year 2," Prescott said, "and he's improved his intensity in his preparation just in this offseason -- the way he's treated his body, the way that he's been communicating with me throughout the offseason, whether it's catching and throwing, he's a big-time playmaker for this team, this offense."

With uncertainty at the No. 3 wide receiver role behind CeeDee Lamb and Brandin Cooks following Michael Gallup's release, the Cowboys could look to Ferguson more in 2024 until 2022 third-round receiver Jalen Tolbert or whomever solidifies that spot. Based on what he did last season, Ferguson could see more attention from opposing defenses.

"Look at CeeDee's path," McCarthy said. "There wasn't too many games the coverage wasn't tilted towards him or in situational football that he wasn't doubled. They can only double two players; just do the mathematics of it. It's definitely something we look at and we're certainly prepared for that."

Ferguson credits some of his 2023 success to a change in the seriousness of his approach. Every day during the special teams' portion of practice, Wells would throw him tennis balls to help his focus, tracking each ball until it hit his hands. In the running game, the film-work focus was on footwork.

That seriousness of approach has not changed this offseason.

"In this league you can't be complacent," Ferguson said. "You've got to just keep going. You've got to keep getting better and that's what I aim to do."