There has been a lot to debate about the Dallas Cowboys this offseason. From the Dez Bryant divorce to just how hard they need to go after Earl Thomas, there is plenty to discuss. One topic, however, seems to me, at least, to be getting more discussion than it merits. It is whether the team needs to work to keep Rico Gathers on the roster.
My fellow writer here, DannyPhantom, gave us his thoughts on why not keeping Gathers on the 53 would be a mistake. Here are the concluding paragraphs from his article.
How frustrating would it be to hold on to this guy for a couple years while he develops only to watch him catch touchdowns for another team?
The comparisons to (Martellus) Bennett are there, but unlike the situation back in 2012, (Jason) Witten is no longer on the team impeding his progress. Rico’s situation is purely about Rico. Does he got it or not? And if he doesn’t, do they believe he can get there soon enough? The Cowboys will have some tough roster decisions to make this year. Every project guy they stash is another possible contributor that doesn’t get a spot. They have to be smart about which guys they keep and which guys they cut loose. And parting ways with Rico could end up being a decision that comes back to bite them.
I don’t see things this way, as you may have gathered (pun more accidental than intended) from the title of this piece. We aren’t exactly monolithic in our thinking here at BTB. Debate about the Cowboys is actually one of the more entertaining and informative parts of things.
So here goes.
As Danny mentioned in his article, the indications from OTAs and minicamp are that Gathers is at the bottom of the pecking order at tight end. That is actually pretty much what we should expect, given the extremely limited time he has had to play and practice. The simple fact is that he just does not know the position that well. That may be due to a certain lack of effort and emphasis on his part, but it also is directly due to the way he was handled last year. Sitting on IR for the entire season meant he could do nothing. No practicing, just rehab and conditioning. It was a year wasted in his development. At this point, Gathers is a player with some truly extraordinary athleticism and a limited functionality on the field.
The situation at tight end has obviously changed, and dramatically. With Jason Witten and James Hanna both gone, Dallas has to figure out just what role the tight end will play. This is affected directly by the evolution going on with the wide receivers. At the moment, it certainly appears that there may be significantly more talent there than with the tight end group. There is certainly more experience. Cole Beasley, Allen Hurns, Terrance Williams, Tavon Austin, and Deonte Thompson all have each seen more game action than the entire tight end room combined.
Closely related to that is how the offense is expected to change this season. Witten, despite his production falling off, was still a reliable target with a canny veteran’s ability to get open. It might not have been for enough yards at times, but he was almost always there when Dak Prescott needed a completion. That particular dynamic is gone, and now Prescott will be developing new “go-to” receivers - hopefully a group of them. That may or may not include one or more of the current tight ends. We also may see Ezekiel Elliott more involved as a receiver, which may lead to fewer targets to the tight ends as well. It is important to remember that there is more than one path down the field, and if it doesn’t involve a lot of throws to tight ends, that doesn’t hurt anything as long as the passes are being completed.
No matter how the passes are distributed this year, the plan definitely is to remain a run-first offense, riding Elliott the way the team did in 2016. He certainly should have a massive chip on his shoulder, and was the most productive running back per game in the league over his first two seasons, despite the enormous distractions of last year. That is why Gathers’ admitted lack of proficiency as a run blocker cannot be discounted. With the offense going through Elliott so much, you have to have tight ends who can help clear the way. The suggestion that Gathers would still have value as a receiver who doesn’t block so well leaves out just how his presence on the field might tip the offense’s hand. He would essentially only be of real use on downs where Dallas had to pass, and that just might not be enough to justify the roster spot.
Meanwhile, there is no way to know if one of the other tight ends will not become at least close to Gathers as a target for Prescott. They might even be better in RPO and play-action situations where the run still has to be sold to the defense. If they are known to be part of the blocking scheme, it should make it easier to get open when the defender is initially trying to get away from them to pursue the ballcarrier. And the team seems to have more regard for Geoff Swaim, Blake Jarwin, and rookie Dalton Schultz. Jarwin, in particular, seems to already be developing well in all phases of the game.
At the most basic level, the question remains, is it worth it to carry a still-developmental player on the roster? There may be too many other places to use that spot, and there is certainly a chance that the Cowboys will only carry three tight ends this year. If that is so, they need to make sure all three can do the complete job in the Dallas offense. At this time, that certainly does not seem to include Gathers.
The real answer to the question will be how he and his fellow tight ends develop during training camp and the preseason. If he should prove doubters wrong and emerge as worthy of a roster spot, then it is all to the good. But that is going to be a challenge, especially since he looks to be coming into things last on the depth chart. That will make it harder to get snaps as the team looks to use practice and preseason game time to the best effect.
If he does not make the 53-man roster, that is not a huge problem. The fact may be that he is much more suited to another scheme, where tight ends are really just very big wideouts. And if he thrives elsewhere, that is great for him, and not a tragedy for the Cowboys. As the example of Bennett shows, some players just need a different situation to succeed. All indications are that Dallas may not be that for Rico. The thought of him lining up across the line for another team should have no weight on the decision whether or not to keep him. The only real consideration is which 53 players gives them the best chance of winning. And that may well mean there is no place for Gathers in Dallas.