The Dallas Cowboys made some surprising moves in building their roster this year. Now that the initial lineup has been set, after the IR and re-signing moves involving Noah Brown, Deonte Thompson, and Datone Jones, we know what the team has to go into the first game against the Carolina Panthers, except for whoever the Cowboys sign now that the Oakland Raiders have messed up the plan to bring Brian Price back in Jones’ place. There could still be another move or two, but the most likely ones are done. Time to take a closer look and see what we can glean. And I think I may have spotted something.
Are we going to see a couple of “specialists” on offense?
One of the surprises on the roster was Rico Gathers, who made the team as a fourth tight end, when they were making some very tough calls elsewhere on who to keep or not. Similarly, Thompson is the sixth wide receiver, another position where the Cowboys went long. Both are seen as primarily having one real strength to offer. Gathers is a great red zone target, where his height and basketball background give him the ability to go up and get balls in traffic. Thompson is primarily a speed merchant, who is best used going deep.
And maybe that is exactly the plan for the two. There is really no way to defend Gathers if Dak Prescott throws the ball where he can go up and bring it in. Gathers’ height means he can get above everyone, and his rebounding talents work just as well in the end zone as they do on a basketball court. Additionally, he offers the defense two ways to account for him: Try and double him up, with the hope of disrupting his pattern so he doesn’t get to the right spot, or just leave him single covered and hope you get to the QB, or the play goes somewhere else. If they go with the first option, it is going to leave someone else (like a shifty Cole Beasley) single covered, and it also will pull someone out of the box, opening possible lanes for Ezekiel Elliott. Take the second approach, and all Prescott really has to do is put the ball in the right place.
This can be a very effective twist on things, especially with the use of RPOs plus Prescott’s mobility to give him time to see where the coverage is. It is always a good idea to attack the weak spots in the defense, and Gathers’ strengths in and of themselves help create such a weak spot.
Similarly, Thompson provides a way to stretch the field, which helps everything else for the offense. Teams face the same kind of dilemma - give the defender on Thompson help over the top, or risk having him blow by his man and give Prescott a wide open shot at a big play. The Cowboys have had an issue with coming up with those big, chunk passing plays, and that is just what Thompson’s skill set is best at. If he does draw that extra defender, the receivers underneath are going to have an easier time getting open, while there will be one or two fewer men in the box if the ball actually goes to the running back.
With both of these players, the Cowboys will need to work on getting the ball to them a few times early in the season. They need to make the threat credible. While we didn’t see much of this in preseason, both Gathers and Thompson (before his Achilles tendon issue caused him to miss time) were giving the defense fits in practices. All it takes is making it work once with each of them, and then defenses will have them in their minds when they line up.
This does mean that Gathers and Thompson have to actually be used, and not just placed on inactive status every game. That is on the coaching staff, of course. It is speculative, but this might be part of the thinking behind the team going short at running back. However they do it, the Cowboys need to get these two on the field to make the roster decisions pay off. Given the other wide receivers, it is doubtful that Dallas would sit any of them on game day. But with the tight ends, Dalton Shultz may be a candidate to be inactive to have Gathers ready for his opportunities.
The Cowboys have not used players who are more niche or role players much in recent years, favoring “position flex”. It would represent a change in approach.
Take a big view, though. Change has been a major factor for Dallas this year. From the remodeling of the staff, to the departures of stalwarts Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, and Dan Bailey, to the massive remaking of the entire roster. And the receiving corps, both wide receivers and tight ends, has signaled a new approach there. Utilizing a couple of “specialists” would be a logical extension of what we have already seen, and show a willingness to truly employ the assets on the roster to the best advantage.
“Position flex” has not always worked out, anyway. It can be useful in some areas, but receivers and tight ends, not so much. (And that is different from using Cole Beasley and Tavon Austin split out wide, which is more about having a full route tree for them to exploit.)
Gathers and Thompson may be a couple of really interesting stories to watch this season. If the team can get the ball in their hands a few times, they could be impact players. Both offer the team not only their unique abilities, but a kind of force multiplier effect that makes everything on the offense work better.
We’ll see. And the first time to find out how they will be used comes in less than a week.
Football is really and truly here. And that is wonderful.