The offseason practices are in the rearview mirror as the Cowboys are heading towards training camp, which begins on July 24 in Oxnard, Calif.
That's usually the place where many of the questions regarding this team start to get answered.
The staff writers at DallasCowboys.com – Rob Phillips, David Helman, Nick Eatman and Bryan Broaddus – are attempting to answer 20 pressing questions as the team gets ready for camp and the 2017 season.
Today, our staff kicks off the series focusing on a player who has never played a snap for the Cowboys. But there is plenty of buzz about former basketball star Rico Gathers, who is making the move to tight end.
20) When Training Camp Ends, What Will Be Rico Gathers' Role?
Broaddus: The front office and coaching staff has invested plenty of time and resources to see this Rico Gathers project through. To his credit, he has improved to the point where he actually looks like an NFL player on the field. The biggest question that remain are his routes. There is a tightness to him and you can see it when he executes his routes during practice. It's to the point that the coaches are working with him after practice an attempt to try and loosen him up. Those routes that we are so accustom seeing Jason Witten run especially in the red zone are difficult for him. In my initial 53 man roster project, I have him making the squad as the 4th tight end behind Witten, Hanna and Swaim but it might be stretch for him to dress each week. Something to keep an eye on during training camp is if Gathers continues to struggle that the staff might take a look at him as an offensive tackle? He has the frame and in a short area has shown some solid blocking traits.
Helman:Maybe it's a mistake to use money as an indicator of personnel moves, but I just have this feeling like the Cowboys are committed to giving Rico Gathers every opportunity because of what they have invested in him. They spent a draft pick on him to make sure they didn't have to compete with 31 other clubs to sign him. Then, they guaranteed his salary to keep him on their practice squad. They've also dedicated countless man hours to helping him improve his abilities as a tight end, having not played the sport in years. My gut feeling is that, as long as Rico is competent and somewhat functional during training camp, he's going to wind up on the 53-man roster – not necessarily because he's one of the 53 best players, but because this team has spent far too many resources on him to give up so quickly. For that reason, I think the Cowboys wind up carrying four tight ends – because they'll need extra guys who can handle the blocking and technical aspects of the position a bit better than Gathers.
Phillips: Right now Gathers' chances seem pretty good given the team's injuries at tight end. Geoff Swaim and James Hanna sat out the offseason practices coming off surgery, but when they're healthy, they're still far more advanced at the position. Gathers has benefited from the extra practice reps, and players and coaches will tell you he's made major progress in his first year of football since eighth grade. But he's still a work in progress, and the Cowboys ask their tight ends to do so much within the offense. The club could always elect to keep four tight ends (starting with Jason Witten, of course) and go lighter at another position like fullback, but Keith Smith stepped up as an effective short-yardage lead blocker for Ezekiel Elliott last season. I think we have to see how healthy the Cowboys' tight ends are by the end of preseason, and the games will help determine just how much Gathers has improved. I do wonder whether he would clear waivers again and get back to the practice squad if he didn't make the final cut.
Eatman: He was introduced over the weekend at Dirk Nowitzki's celebrity softball game as "Dallas Cowboys Superstar … Rico Gathers" - that might be a stretch for someone who has never played a down. But I think Gathers will be the 53-man roster when the season begins. Honestly, I think that's a decision the Cowboys need to decide right now. As silly as it might sound, I think there's a commitment to Rico that needs to be made at camp and certainly in the preseason. If any player needs five preseason games, it's Rico Gathers. But the Cowboys shouldn't worry about that "hiding players" mess. Gathers needs to get in the game and play. If other teams like him, too, that's fine. He's going to be on the team and you just play him and put him on the roster. The question to me, is the 46-man roster. He will make the team but does he suit up on game day? Personally, I think he will dress for some games, but not all. It depends on the health of other tight ends and the exact role Gathers has for the offense. Don't rule out a possibility of him helping on special teams on field-goal block. His size, power and jumping ability might make him a decent kick-blocker.