Cowboys: Can Rico Gathers Be a Star?

Jun 14, 2016; Irving, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys tight end Rico Gathers (80) makes a catch during minicamp at Dallas Cowboys Headquarters. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 14, 2016; Irving, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys tight end Rico Gathers (80) makes a catch during minicamp at Dallas Cowboys Headquarters. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports /

The Dallas Cowboys have a history of success developing high-potential project players. Can rookie 6th round pick, Rico Gathers, become the next?

The Dallas Cowboys used their very last pick of the 2016 NFL Draft to select a high-potential project player. A project player who hasn’t played organized football since he was 13-years old. Rico Gathers, of Baylor basketball fame, joins the Cowboys as a tight end this season but he faces a steep uphill battle.  

Rico Gathers is hardly the first NCAA basketball player to make the jump to the NFL. Other notable standouts like Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez, Martellus Bennett, and Jimmy Graham have also successfully pivoted their athletic careers from basketball to football, so Rico Gathers isn’t exactly embarking in uncharted territory here.

But what can’t go disregarded is that while all of these players made their names on the hardwood, they still played some college football (with the exception of Gates who only played through high school). Rico Gathers, on the other hand, did not play college football. Heck, he didn’t even play high school football. He’s essentially making the leap from middle school ball to professional football. The delta between which cannot be understated.

While the odds are obviously stacked against him, here’s why Rico Gathers has a shot at not only making the team, but possibly even becoming a star…

Setting expectations is always important – especially in Cowboys Nation. The pure numbers show us Rico Gathers is an extreme longshot to ever become a Gates, Gonzalez, or Smith. All of those basketball players turned All-Pro tight ends tested off the charts athletically. Gathers tested well, but not other worldly by any means.

That’s not to say ‘ol Rico is a bum either.

Rico Gathers, 6’6” 273lbs, is the size teams covet when searching for tight ends. He’s tall, strong, and has great footwork. His basketball days show how well he uses his body to box out and ability to play in tight spaces.

All of this points to his ability to use his frame to make tough catches in zone creases (a la Jason Witten) and also develop into a well-leveraged blocker. He’s also said to make an immediate impact in the red zone as a jump ball/fade expert (but then again, that’s what they said about Gavin Escobar).

When looking at Rico Gathers it’s hard not to think for former Cowboys TE Martellus Bennett. Bennett is strikingly similar in both size and stature. At 6’6” 273lbs, he’s his physical doppelganger.

Throw in the basketball history, soft hands, and raw athletic ability and you have a blueprint of which to follow. Of course, as mentioned before, Bennett did have college football experience and while underutilized, he was considerably more polished than the uber-raw Rico Gathers.

But Bennett also entered the league as a pass-catching project player who eventually developed into one of the league’s best blockers and most feared red zone pass-catchers. If you stopped following Bennett’s career after he left the Cowboys you probably had no idea he is considered one of the better TEs in the NFL and is on course for a huge season in New England alongside Rob Gronkowski.

But I digress…

The point is if Rico Gathers can become a Pro Bowler like Martellus Bennett (sans drama) he would be a huge win for the Cowboys. That may not put him in the company of Jason Witten, Jay Novacek, or  Mike Ditka but many of us would have no problem of adding another Pro Bowler to the all-time list of Cowboys TEs.

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Gathers may have been a pick out of leftfield for fans and draftniks, but he wasn’t for other NFL teams. At least 24 NFL teams watched his pre-draft workout. Not wanting to get in a bidding war in post-draft free agency, the Cowboys opted to use their last pick (217th) on the Baylor project player.

Like I said before, expectations are important in these parts and the team (and fans) can be much more patient with a sixth round project player than with a second round disappointment.

The key to Rico Gathers success lies in roster management. The tight end position is far from easy to learn. The TE must be a key component as a run blocker, pass protector, as well as receiver. Finding soft spots in zone schemes is harder than it looks and is the #1 reason Jason Witten has been so successful in his NFL career. For any TE to make in Jason Garrett’s offense, he needs to have that knack for finding the soft spots.

Gathers will struggle to contribute as an inline TE, flex TE, and even as an H-back. He could find a niche working as a red zone target, high-pointing the ball for undefendable receptions, but will that be enough to warrant a roster spot?

My money says no.

Unless some unforeseen injury occurs, Jason Witten, James Hanna, and Geoff Swaim will claim the only three TE roster spots. Rico Gathers will need to find his way onto the PUP or IR. This way the Cowboys can retain ownership of the 22-year old project and allow him to read, learn, and develop in an unofficial redshirt rookie year.

Next: Look For This Cowboys TE to Step up in 2016

It may sound shady but NFL teams do this every season. Dropping a player to the practice squad exposes him to waivers and allows him to be signed by another club. Teams will often exaggerate an injury to justify placing him on season-ending IR. Since no one wishes for an injury to the top three TEs, we should all be wishing the Cowboys find an excuse to stash Gathers on the IR and give his vast potential a chance to develop.

Will Rico gathers be a star? If he lands on the IR this summer he may have a chance.