FRISCO, Texas – What's the best way to describe Rico Gathers' rookie minicamp a year ago?
Let the Cowboys' tight end explain himself.
"That was like a baby walking into a business office trying to run a business," he said. "It's just not going to happen."
Great analogy, and an accurate one given Gathers' universal jump up in weight class: eighth-grade experience to the National Football League.
The former Baylor basketball star was eligible to participate in last weekend's rookie minicamp, having spent his entire rookie season on the practice squad. The difference between this year and last: "1,000 times better."
"Now I feel like I'm ready for everything they've got to throw at me this year," he said.
He knows what this year's rookie class is going through. The new competition. The mass information. The techniques that must be relearned.
Last year, Gathers even marveled at the size of the locker room coming from a basketball program with only 12-15 players.
"After everything got going, it kind of got to like a whirlwind for me. I felt like my head was about to burst from all the new information I was learning," he said. "Once we went on that break before training camp, that's when everything slowed down for me and started saying, 'Oh OK, now I get this and now I get that.' It's second nature now."
The Cowboys drafted Gathers in the 2016 seventh round knowing full well he would be a long-term project. At 6-6, 290, he had tantalizing talent. At age 22, he also hadn't played competitive football since he was 13.
He spent much of his rookie year taking mental reps, redefining his fundamentals while simultaneously learning the complexities of the Cowboys' playbook – not only as a pass catcher, but a blocker, too.
Sitting next to 10-time Pro Bowler Jason Witten helped.
"I'll be sitting next to him in our coaching sessions and I see him jotting down a note, and I'm like, 'OK, I've got to jot that down, too,'" Gathers said.
"He's the model for the Cowboys. 'Ironman' – that's what they call him, right? I just look up to him. Whether it's me going back watching film of him, every time I look at our film I'm looking at him mostly, just dissecting his every move and stuff like that. When you've got an idea, a model of what you want to be like right in your same locker room, you just try to pick apart everything that he does."
As the Cowboys' veterans continue Phase 2 of the voluntary offseason program this month, Gathers is currently the second tight end behind Witten for the offense-only sessions. James Hanna missed the entire 2016 season with a knee injury; Geoff Swaim injured his pectoral muscle last November and underwent offseason foot surgery. Head coach Jason Garrett indicated training camp might be a more likely target for their full return to practice.
That means more reps for Gathers.
"It's night and day for him in a good way from a year ago till now, just figuring the game out," offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. "It's slowed down for him, so he's able to play fast. When you know what you're doing and you've got your body in football shape it's amazing what you can do. That's the biggest difference from where he was a year ago till now.
"We expect him to just improve daily. He gives us that big target in the passing game and a really big guy that I think will be able to match up good in the running game. He's what you're looking for at tight end when it comes to the physical part, and the mental part of the years he's missed playing the game are coming with the reps he's getting."
Once Hanna and Swaim get healthy, Gathers will have competition for a spot on the 53-man roster behind Witten.
Gathers' goal is to be much more improved by the time those decisions are made in early September.
"Am I going to be at my peak point right now? No," he said. "If I was, then that's a problem. Each and every day I'm just looking to get better. By the time the season comes you want to at least be pushing past a limit that you've never seen before."