Rico Gathers didn’t go along with an analogy that he came to the Dallas Cowboys as a “freshman” in 2016, not knowing much about football since he hadn’t played it in high school or college, to being a “senior” with more knowledge and experience going into this season.
“When you’re a senior, it’s about ‘what’s next,’” Gathers said. “This is more so about contracts. It’s my contract year, of course, I want to be able to make or break this year so I can get on to the next phase of my career.
“But, for the most part, it’s all about the growth.”
Gathers then smiled and said, referencing the analogy: “Last year was my first real year of playing, although this is my fourth year. I look at it like it’s really my sophomore year, man. For the most part, I’m just excited about this year.
“I feel like I’ve prepared myself well mentally, physically, controlling that weight, stuff like that. I feel like I’ve got a fighting chance.”
There’s no question this is a pivotal year for Gathers’ career.
He is entering his fourth year in the NFL, and will become a restricted free agent after the season. That means other teams can sign Gathers with the Cowboys given a chance to match any outside offers.
But the first step for Gathers is making this year’s team again.
He understands that, but isn’t overly consumed with it.
“I simply don’t even worry about it,” Gathers said. “I just come here, show up to my job. As long as I wake up and I’ve got a job, at the end of the day that’s the only thing that matters to me. With that mindset, it just makes it easy for me to come out here and do my job.
“At the end of the day, hey, if they told me they wanted to part ways, then you’ve just got to accept it. But, you know, I feel like I do exactly what I need to do for this team, do what I need to do as far as my growth as a tight end, stuff like that. That’s what’s kept me around for so long.”
Yes, Gathers has lasted longer than some may have even expected. Heck, he’s played in more games (15) than the player the Cowboys drafted right before him in the sixth round of the 2016 NFL Draft -- running back Darius Jackson (four).
The Cowboys knew Gathers would be a project, transitioning from standout college basketball player at Baylor to NFL tight end. In a lot of ways, Gathers still is a project.
This is a guy who finally saw the field last season, playing in 15 of 16 regular-season games and each playoff game. He caught his first regular-season pass for 32 yards in Week 5 at Houston, and played a career-high 18 snaps against the Tennessee Titans in Week 9.
Gathers finished his debut season with three receptions for 45 yards on seven targets.
“He’s gotten better really each and every year, he takes a really good approach,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “I think he’s learned how to become a professional and continue to grow. Like with any player you need to see him get to a point where you can put him in and do a few different things that we ask our tight ends to do. It’s not an easy position.
“You have to be reasonably involved in the running game, reasonably involved in the passing game so there’s a lot of things for him to continue to learn. He’s definitely getting better and better.”
Part of Gathers’ growth, as Garrett alluded to, is his more professional demeanor. Gathers said he’s stayed in the 270-pound range this off-season, whereas in years past he may have ballooned into the 300-pound range.
“That’s been really good for me,” Gathers said. “Just moving around on the field and just staying in shape and staying conditioned.
“But, I think for me, I’ve just got to accept the fact that I’m a big guy. I try to use that to my advantage, instead of looking at it as a negative. It’s definitely a positive for me.”