FRISCO, Texas – When the season ended back in January and the Cowboys quickly shifted to the draft process, it was clear that adding depth at tight end was a must.
That changed in a matter of weeks when Jason Witten decided to end his retirement and return for a 16th season.
As a result, the Cowboys did not sign another veteran tight end in free agency, nor did they draft one or even sign an undrafted rookie. The only addition other than Witten is Cody McElroy, who spent some time with the Rams last year but is a project, considering his limited football background after he played processional baseball and college basketball.
Speaking of projects, Rico Gathers is now pretty far along in his development as he enters his fourth season.
But his status with the team hit a snag when he was suspended by the NFL this past week for a violation of the league's substance abuse policy.
So what does this mean for the position at all?
Can the Cowboys still keep four tight ends on the roster like they did most of last year?
And where does Gathers fit into this equation after this latest setback?
All of those questions and more will likely have to wait to be answered, considering the Cowboys have wrapped up their offseason practices for the summer. There are no scheduled press conferences from the team until the start of training camp in late July.
And despite his 1-game suspension, Gathers will be able to participate in training camp and the preseason games, but will be moved to the suspension list for Week 1, assuming he makes the roster.
And that's where things can get interesting for the Cowboys, who will obviously have Witten atop the depth chart, followed by prospects Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz. Jarwin had three touchdown catches in the Week 17 finale against the Giants, a feat that Witten had never accomplished. Schultz, a fourth-round pick in 2018 from Stanford, saw an increased role as the season went on and should be ready to see a bigger role this year.
To begin his rookie season, Schultz found himself playing behind Gathers as the third tight end, along with Jarwin and Geoff Swaim, who signed a free-agent deal with the Jaguars this offseason.
Now with Witten back in the fold, the tight end room could be again get crowded, but the Cowboys have shown the ability to keep four on the roster before.
The key for Gathers is to once again prove that he's worthy of keeping. Before, it was more justified because he was a young, raw talent who was just learning the game of football. While the learning curve is still there, he's now entering his fourth pro season. How much longer can the Cowboys really wait on him to turn that proverbial corner and make a contribution?
Last year, he caught two passes in the regular season, but was used mainly as a blocker. The threat of him high-pointing the ball near the goal line to snatch down passes like he did rebounds in college at Baylor, just never materialized.
Maybe Gathers is ready to make that leap this year, but the road just got even harder. And not because of his suspension, but the fact that Witten is now back in the fold and history suggests he doesn't come off the field too often.
Now from the Cowboys' perspective, the suspension to Gathers might actually give them more time to make what could be a tough decision.
Instead of having to release a tight end at the end of the preseason, Gathers will revert to the suspended list. That at least gives the team one more week to either figure out the roster and how to put Gathers back on it or decide to release him if he's not part of their plans.
Lots of question marks to be answered, but this latest incident with Gathers doesn't cloud the situation too much.