The buzz around former Baylor University basketball player-turned-Dallas Cowboys tight end Rico Gathers has heightened since the draft. Already a fan favorite, the speculation has mounted since Dallas didn’t draft a single tight end in the NFL draft a few weeks ago. The theory is the reason for not taking a tight end in the draft; he is ready to contribute for the Cowboys this upcoming season.

Gathers: the project player

Gathers was a 6’8 former power forward for Baylor University who was taken in the 6th round of the 2016 NFL Draft. That’s it. So far, he has garnered plenty of buzz, thanks to himself and the Cowboys’ coaches and front office. Not lacking in confidence, he’s already proclaimed himself as the heir to Jason Witten. Jason Garrett praised him recently on his improvement as a tight end. Longtime NFL tight end guru and four-time Super Bowl champion coach Mike Pope recently made a bold statement about him, and Cowboys’ scouting director and draft master Will McClay gave more high praise for Gathers on the “Cowboys Break” podcast a week ago.

Despite all the praising and hype, Gathers still faces a steep climb to make the Cowboys’ 53-man roster. Realistically speaking, he might not be a significant presence for the Cowboys’ offense in 2017. If Witten continues his iron man streak, Gathers will be battling James Hanna and Geoff Swaim for backup tight end spots. In Gathers’ favor, however, both are returning from injuries. These are tight ends who’s seen real game time action against starting NFL defenders, so they already have an experience advantage over him.

How Gathers can change his game

There’s more to the tight end position than catching the ball and picking up yards as well. The good thing for Gathers, however, is his snaps taken at offensive tackle during Cowboys’ practices last year and there’s probably not a better set of players to learn run and pass blocking from than Jason Witten and Dallas’s offensive linemen. If he shows a willingness to block for his passer and help clear lanes for his running backs but do it effectively in the preseason, that will skyrocket his chances of playing in a regular season game this year.

Lastly, what will get Rico on the field in September: how well he can contribute on special teams. With Witten being the exception, Dallas requires all of their tight ends to be special team contributors. In 2016, Gavin Escobar played 159 snaps on special teams. Swaim played 47 special team snaps, and James Hanna made his mark as a special teams gunner before taking snaps on offense years ago, and still get snaps when healthy. So Gathers highway to getting on the field in the regular season will be his effectiveness on special teams. That will be a focal point for him in the preseason.

One day, and possibly one day soon, Gathers can be a nightmare red zone weapon for the Cowboys’ offense. Lined up alongside Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams and Jason Witten, with Ezekiel Elliott behind Dak, Rico could be snagging the ball out of the air above a poor defender with his 6’8, 280 lb frame and power forward vertical. Until then, however, Gathers might just be the team’s #3 tight end with more special team highlights than offensive highlights in 2017, and that’s not a bad thing by any means.

Dallas-born Texan. Enjoys sports, fishing, cars, writing and good company.