The Rico Gathers project has reached Phase 2 at The Star.
Phase 1 was a full year on the Dallas Cowboys’ practice squad, soaking up all the terminology, all the hand placement and footwork necessary to make the transition from a Baylor power forward to an NFL tight end. After a full year of practice, Phase 2 will likely mean Gathers getting all the second-team tight end reps until at least training camp, as both Geoff Swaim and James Hanna are out of action this off-season with injuries.
Hanna had a second knee surgery in November to repair an injury he sustained in the summer of 2016, and Swaim underwent a procedure to insert a screw into a foot that he injured during an informal players workout in March.
“I don’t know how much we’re going to see either of those guys in the off-season, in the OTA’s and minicamp,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said after Friday’s workout.
So the door, for now, is wide open for Gathers, one of the unlikeliest candidates a year ago, to establish himself as the heir apparent to future Hall of Famer and 35-year-old Jason Witten.
At this point, though, that thought doesn’t seem so outlandish.
“It’s night and day for [Gathers] in a good way from last year,” offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said after the first of two workouts. “When you know what you’re doing and you’ve got your body in football shape, it’s amazing what you can do, and that’s the biggest difference from where he was a year ago until now.”
Having stashed Gathers on the practice squad at a salary of $499,990, which is roughly four times what your average practice squad player is paid, Jason Garrett & Co. obviously have bigger things planned for Gathers, and Friday was his first chance of the new football year to show the progress he’s made.
“Since Day 1 they’ve taken a chance on a guy who didn’t even play football until the age of 13,” Gathers said. “That showed me that they were really invested from Day 1.”
Gathers was granted eligibility to participate in rookie mini-camp because he did not officially accrue a season of service last year.
“You think about where he was, coming from last year,” Garrett said. “He hadn’t played football since junior high, and he had done a really good job working out, trying to understand and get better at the fundamentals of the game away from here, but once he got here, it’s a different story. He came to work every day, and you saw him get better. He’s a very different player in all ways. He’s grown up in a lot of different ways that will help him become a better player this year.”
Even last year, though, Gathers’ flashed ability on the scout team, as he took hundreds of reps against the Cowboys’ first-team defense.
“You could see what he could do in the red zone,” Linehan said. “Jason Witten started this trend years ago, but he’s one of these guys with big catch radiuses. Tall tight ends like that, they’re always an option. Someone’s on him, but they’re still an option. If they play man across the board, throw it to the 6-8 guy. Those were all really meaningful days for him last year.”
Gathers was listed at 6-foot-6 on the official Cowboys’ rookie mini-camp roster.
The gains that Phase 1 netted Gathers were evident early in Friday’s workout when he effortlessly reacted to a ball thrown behind him on a seam route, reaching back in stride and to catch the ball and glide into the end zone as gracefully as 281 pounds can. But that athleticism is only half of what it will take to be a successful tight end in the league.
Besides, by all accounts, Gathers has taken the biggest strides in the trenches.
“I just need to show that I can block, and I feel like I’ve gotten a whole lot better in blocking,” Gathers said. “Simple techniques, steps, hand placement, your hat placement, all that stuff will carry you a long way.”
Time will tell if his improvement in the less graceful end of the game will match the ability he flashes in the passing game, and whether the whole package will add up to a true No. 2 tight end option in his second year. But the Rico Gathers project certainly has some steam behind it.
Matthew Martinez: 817-390-7667; @MCTinez817