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Could Rico Gathers finally break out in Kellen Moore’s offense?

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Now seems as good a time as ever for the tight end to step up.

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

You’d be forgiven if you had completely forgotten that Rico Gathers was still on this team, as there’s been hardly a word said about the fourth-year player until this week. According to Gathers, he’s finally “picking up on everything” now, although we’ve heard that from Gathers plenty of times before.

But with Kellen Moore taking over the offense and making some changes to how personnel is used, could Gathers actually be in line to benefit greatly and put it all together? There’s a few barriers in his way, but it does seem at least plausible. Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that when the Cowboys selected Gathers in the 2016 NFL draft, he hadn’t played organized football since middle school. Effectively, he’s had to learn how to play the sport since coming to Dallas.

Being that this is his fourth year with the team, it can almost be thought of as his senior year if he had played in college. The point being that this should be the year where Gathers puts it all together and is able to become a consistent contributor. He will have a tough time seeing the field with the return of Jason Witten, and fellow youngsters Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz seem to be in line for the lion’s share of snaps behind the un-retired future Hall of Famer.

But Gathers has the physical attributes to emerge as a key cog in Moore’s offense. Standing at 6’6” and 282 pounds, Gathers is one of the NFL’s biggest tight ends without sacrificing any functional athleticism. The 4.66 40-yard dash he ran at his pro day would have tied for fifth best this year, a better number than top prospects like TJ Hockenson and Jace Sternberger. Gathers’ impressive vertical and broad jumps further show his raw athletic ability, and that shows up on tape; however, Gathers doesn’t appear to be the most agile player.

Gathers isn’t an elite route-runner, nor will he make defenders miss with cuts and jukes, but his combination of speed, size, and strength make him full of potential to be a matchup nightmare. Until now, the Cowboys offense has mostly asked their tight ends to run shorter routes and function as security blankets. But Moore might seek to use his tight ends on a more diverse set of routes, as Dallas did with Jarwin in Week 17 against the Giants. And if that’s the case, it opens up possibilities for Gathers.

After all, look at this clip from a 2017 preseason game where Moore threw a beautiful touchdown to Gathers:

On this play, Gathers runs a simple deep crossing route that took him to the endzone. Moore places the ball high and Gathers is able to use his big, strong frame to essentially pull down a rebound and get the touchdown. The safety in coverage (who, by the way, has the coolest name ever: Ironhead Gallon) never really has a chance despite close coverage and no real moves from Gathers to shake Gallon. This kind of tight end usage is similar to what the Patriots routinely did with Rob Gronkowski, and Moore should look to them as inspiration for how to best use Gathers.

But the question really comes down to how Moore might use the tight end position. We’ve heard about an abundance of 10 personnel - which has zero tight ends - and of course there’s that quick clip of a backside screen to Witten. And Boise State, where Moore seems to be drawing much of his inspiration from, doesn’t really use the tight end that much in the passing game.

But they did when Moore played there, though. And while it might not be a harbinger of things to come, let’s take a brief look at Kyle Efaw, Moore’s tight end during his days as a college star. Efaw was a three year starter, graduating the same year Moore did. And in every one of his seasons as a starter, Efaw was top five on his team in receptions. He never broke 500 receiving yards in a season, but Efaw did have 12 touchdowns in his final two seasons.

The vast majority of his usage came in the red zone, where he posed a matchup problem. With the way Boise State moves their skill players around before the snap, they frequently got Efaw in coverage against a linebacker, which allowed the quick runner to get open in the endzone.

While Efaw is a much different kind of tight end than Gathers, who has two inches and about 20 pounds on Efaw, there still remains the fact that Moore as a player frequently looked to his tight end for favorable matchups near the endzone. Gathers has the size to become an effective red zone threat, so Moore might seek to use Gathers in a similar manner to the way he connected with Efaw.

All of this, however, is contingent on Gathers actually progressing as a football player. He’ll have to work hard to earn time over Jarwin and Schultz, as the Cowboys may not carry four tight ends again. This could very well be the last chance for Gathers in Dallas, but with Moore running the show now, his opportunity has never been better.