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Rico Gathers is already the most explosive Cowboys tight end

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Rico Gathers has all the tools to be a great option in the Cowboys passing game.

NFL: Pro Football Hall of Fame Game-Arizona Cardinals vs Dallas Cowboys Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Rico Gathers has four total receptions in two preseason games spread over two years, so it may be more than a little premature to designate him the Cowboys’ most explosive tight end. Nonetheless, what a combination of plays they were!

Here’s the first one, from last year.

After this play, Michael Irvin labeled Gathers “Zeus”, saying he was like a Greek God. There is little doubt that no other tight end on the Cowboys roster could have executed that run after catch. What’s truly amazing is his balance for a big man.

Then there are the reports that Gathers ate up the Cowboys defense last year when Tony Romo was throwing to him while on the scout team.

Gathers posed mismatches in the passing game with smaller defenders, and Romo knew exactly how to take advantage.

"Having a guy like Tony Romo in your corner, believing in you, seeing your potential and maximizing it during that time we had, that was a surreal moment," Gathers said. "He'd keep me after practice and have me work on certain routes and stuff like that. I couldn't ask for a better situation than having him work with me and just taking the time out to really mold me [and] just getting the basics down for me."

That brings us up to this season, when Gathers was much more prepared. In the first preseason game against Arizona, Gathers had three catches for 59 yards and a touchdown. Here’s the touchdown.

A nice 26-yard grab on third and eleven.

Scott Linehan understands how the Cowboys can use Gathers.

Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said Gathers' catch radius makes him "always an option" in passing situations. When a defense is playing man-to-man, Linehan said, "throw it to the [6-6] guy."

But that wasn’t the only play of the night for Gathers. This might have been the most impressive. He had to tumble to the ground to catch it, after only two yards, but when he quickly bounced back up, he then ran for 15 more yards.

Here’s his last catch, which went for another 16 yards.

That’s four catches for 67 yards, for 16.75 yards per catch. But what’s most impressive about these numbers is that the ball only traveled about 4-5 yards on three of his catches, but he added eight, 15, and 14 yards after the catch on those receptions.

Between his height, speed, hands, and ability to keep his balance and break tackles, Rico Gathers has the kind of explosion the Cowboys have largely been missing from the tight end position for years.

Jason Witten is a Hall of Fame tight end. But his yards per catch has declined over the years, and been under 10 yards per catch the last two seasons, and he’s only caught three TD passes each of the last two years. (He’s also never cracked 12 yards per catch in any season.) Meanwhile, James Hanna and Geoff Swaim, between them, have a total of 40 catches in 75 games and zero TDs. Swaim has seven catches for an average of 9.9 yards per catch, while Hanna has 33 catches for an average of 8.7 yards per catch.

It won’t be difficult for Rico Gathers to crush these numbers, even as a rookie.

The leading qualified tight end in yards per catch last year was Jimmy Graham, at 14.2 yards per catch. He was followed by Greg Olsen, Hunter Henry, Vernon Davis, and Travis Kelce, who averaged 13.2 yards per catch. But these guys diluted their yards per catch by catching lots of balls, just as Witten has.

If you look at non-qualified tight ends who caught more than 10 passes, the averages can go way up. Rob Gronkowski, for example, caught 25 passes on 38 targets for a ridiculous average of 21.6 yards per catch! Levine Toilolo caught 13 balls for Atlanta at 20.3 yards per catch. Eric Swope caught 15 balls for Indy at 19.8 yards per catch. Ladarius Green caught 18 balls for 16.9 yards per catch, or right around where Rico Gathers has been in his extremely short preseason career.

Rico Gathers isn’t going to threaten Jason Witten’s position as the Cowboys’ leading tight end any time soon, but he has already shown more as a receiving threat than both James Hanna and Geoff Swaim, and he’s got more explosion potential than any of them. That’s why it doesn’t make sense for people to continue questioning whether he’ll make the 53-man roster or be active on game days. If his blocking comes along, he’s going to quickly move up to #2 on the tight end depth chart. Should be exciting to see him develop.