Through two preseason games there is a lot to like about Rico Gathers. The 6’6”, 290-pound Dallas Cowboys tight end has made the most of his opportunities thus far catching seven passes for 106 yards – averaging 15.1 yards per reception – and two scores. His play is showing everyone exactly why Jerry Jones took a risk using a sixth-round pick on Gathers in the 2016 NFL Draft. As it’s been repeated during every grab he makes that resembles a rebound – Gathers didn’t play football in college for Baylor, but basketball. It may not be seen as much of a gamble considering it was only a sixth-round pick and very-good-to-elite tight ends played basketball prior to switching to football full time. Examples include Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, and Jimmy Graham. However, Gathers never played high school football and hasn’t played the game since the eighth grade. Despite his excellent physique and athletic ability, it made it difficult to project how he would fare in the NFL.
Of course, Gathers is not close to a finished product. It’s likely he’ll make the team because the Cowboys know another NFL team will be there to claim him should they attempt to stash him on the practice squad. But he’s still a project for Dallas’s coaching staff as he needs to clean up his route-running and drastically improve his blocking. Regardless of all that, his raw ability is enough to provide some value to the Cowboys offense right now.
Gathers displayed his ability to make contested catches against the Arizona Cardinals during the Hall of Fame Game to kick off the 2017 NFL preseason. Late in the 1st quarter, the Cowboys lined up with an empty backfield on 3rd and 11 from Arizona’s 26-yard line. Gathers is standing to the left of the left tackle in a trips formation. When the ball is snapped to Kellen Moore (#17), Gathers runs a post route breaking to the inside toward the middle of the field. Gathers is in a one-on-one matchup with safety Ironhead Gallon (#47) near the goal line. Moore throws a pass high and toward the tight end’s way and Gathers high points the ball with Gallon draped over him trying to knock the ball loose. The tight end is able to reel in the grab and out-muscle Gallon for the ball, scoring the touchdown.
Gathers demonstrates good play strength on 50/50 balls. The former basketball player has an advantage against most safeties and linebackers near the red zone where he can use his size while going up and high pointing the ball, using his play strength to out-rebound defenders. Gathers could be a useful red zone threat for Dak Prescott in this highly-talented passing attack.
The next week Gathers scored his second touchdown against the Los Angeles Rams late in the 3rd quarter. Dallas faced a 2nd and 8 from the Rams 25-yard line lined up in 12 personnel. Cooper Rush (#7) – who has played extremely well this preseason displaying good poise, timing, and touch on his passes, could potentially oust Moore as the Cowboys’ backup QB – is in the shotgun with HB/FB Rod Smith (#45). Blake Jarwin (#89) and Gathers are positioned to the left side of the offensive line. The ball is snapped and Gathers runs up the seam and fakes outside before running back up the seam again. Using the fake, he is able to create enough separation between himself and LB Folarin Orimolade (#56). Rush is able to drop a perfect pass to Gathers for a game-tying touchdown. This play is another example of how Gathers can be a matchup problem for linebackers near the red zone. He has the quickness to beat these type of players and, as he displayed in the play earlier, can use his strength out-muscle them too – making Gathers a nightmare matchup for opposing defenses.
A very good athlete like Gathers could be used in an array of ways in a versatile Dallas offense. He can play in empty sets off the line where he can run down the middle of the field – running posts or sitting in voids of defenses. He can also be lined up on the wing,motioning across the backfield with Prescott faking the run and rolling out with Gathers running against the flow into the flat for easy yards after the catch. His role in 2017 should be more of a red zone target as he refines his game, but there is a lot of potential for Gathers moving forward.
Despite Gathers’ success in the passing game, blocking will limit his snaps in 2017. But he’ll have time to learn. He has a great mentor in Jason Witten who’s one of the best all-around tight ends in the game. Perhaps in time Gathers puts it all together and is able to be Witten’s heir. Maybe he never becomes a very good blocker, but if he’s able to become at least a solid one his projected receiving ability should make him one of the league’s most feared weapons in the middle of the field.
Note – Gathers suffered an injury during practice and is currently in concussion protocol. He missed preseason Week 2 against the Indianapolis Colts.