Former Baylor University basketball star Rico Gathers has shown dominance over the last two preseasons for the Dallas Cowboys, but nothing in the regular season yet.
The 6’8” and 275-pound tight end out of Baylor University was sixth round draft pick of the Cowboys in 2016. Having focused on basketball in college, Gathers was a clear project for the NFL, which explains why he essentially red shirted his first year out of school.
But then came 2017 and the expectation that this heir apparent to Jason Witten, or any other tight ends on the roster, would get on the field following a year spent as an understudy.
Oddly, Gathers suffered a pretty sever concussion before training camp ended, but he was never seen again – literally.
In the video below, you can see the play in which Gathers got banged up, yet it’s hard to tell exactly what happened beyond a pretty significant collision. The bigger question is what exactly can the Dallas Cowboys out of this well-invested project for 2018?
The Cowboys have tried for years to incorporate ’12 personnel’ as a staple for their offense, and they’ve generally ended up going in different directions. So long as you’ve got Witten and an apex wide receiver like Terrell Owens or Dez Bryant in the fold, you’re really not going to be throwing the ball to a second tight end very often. If you doubt the Cowboys intentions is this area, just do a quick review of second-round draft picks like Anthony Fasano, Martellus Bennett and Gavin Escobar, each tight ends who made almost no difference in the Dallas offense.
But Gathers is a different type of player at a very different time.
To start with, Witten has stated that he intends to return to the Cowboys next season, this despite recent rumors that he was in the mix for the head coaching job at the University of Tennessee. The fact that 2018 would be Witten’s sixteenth in the NFL is both a blessing and a curse. There’s no other Cowboys player that I can think of over the last twenty years that’s deserving of a Super Bowl ring in Dallas.
But Witten is not exactly the same player he used to be. He’ll be 36 years-old in early May and if it wasn’t for his tremendous size and reliability, Father Time would have already claimed the greatest tight end in franchise history – sorry Jay Novacek, but Cowboys Nation loves you, too.
As Witten stands 6’6” and weighs in a 260 pounds, it’s exciting to ponder how Gathers could fill in to the same type of role, but with even greater athleticism, height and vertical ability.
But he’s got to get on the field.
The 2018 NFL Draft will offer the usual diet of both passing and blocking tight ends. Given Witten’s age, Gathers’s status and the fact that both James Hanna and Geoff Swaim are entering contract years in ’18, it’s time to finding out what’s what at tight end in the very near future.
It was easy to see that Dak Prescott faced numerous issues during his second season in the NFL, but near the top of those issues was a passing game that just wasn’t what it was in 2016. Clear is the fact that Bryant is not the ‘X Factor’ of old and opposing defenses clamped down on Cole Beasley as though he was a perennial Pro Bowl receiver last season.
The answer is simple, especially if you’ve seen what Rico Gathers can do in his limited opportunities during the last two summers. If he’s ready to play next season and can get a year of influence and guidance from Witten, a potentially damaging hole for the future will have just been filled.
The career of Troy Aikman was rapidly placed on the fast track to success once Novacek entered the picture as early as 1990. The Cowboys were winning their first of three Super Bowls in that decade by 1992.
Prescott needs more than just an outlet receiver underneath. He needs that big target who can not only move the chains, but also stretch the field and break tackles in the open field. Rico Gathers does all of those things better than any other tight end on the roster right now and it doesn’t look like there’s anybody in the draft that’s more ready to play in the NFL.