OXNARD, Calif. -When rookie Andrew Szczerba showed up to training camp in Oxnard, he was considered a blocking tight end with a relatively small shot at making the final roster of 53. Quite a bit has changed since then.
Szczerba has not only proven to be a viable receiving threat, but he also may end up as the third tight end on the squad for the opening game against the New York Giants on Sept. 5 if Jason Witten is still recovering from his spleen injury.
At 6-6, 256 pounds, Szczerba made a name for himself as a terrific and physical blocker in his four years at Penn State. He was not exactly catching a lot of passes, though. In his senior season he only had 12 receptions for 101 yards. The Cowboys are learning that those statistics might have a little more to do with Penn State's offense than they do with Szczerba's actual skill set.
Szczerba has the prototypical size for a tight end and has actually done an excellent job of running his routes and catching passes thus far in training camp. He showed this was not just a case of playing well when no one was watching by catching a 20-yard pass in the first preseason game against Oakland.
While many people are surprised with Szczerba's pass catching abilities, he is not one of them.
"I feel like I'm a full tight end," Szczerba said. "I feel like I can block and I can catch. I wasn't surprised that I had a 20-yard catch. We're catching balls all day out here."
A timetable for Jason Witten's return is still up in the air, but he will likely not play in any of the remaining three preseason games. That will leave John Phillips as the primary tight end. Phillips inherits the job due to his three years of experience and the flashes of potential he has shown while with the Cowboys. But even Phillips only just returned to practicing in full pads on Wednesday after recovering from an ankle injury. After Phillips, the candidates are Szczerba and James Hanna.
Hanna was drafted in the sixth round out of Oklahoma last March. Hanna has also looked impressive in camp and caught two passes against Oakland. He is projected by many to be the third tight end on the depth chart due to his impressive speed and his potential as a receiving threat. However, Szczerba's reputation as a blocker may serve to his advantage. Hanna is considered the better passing threat, but if Szczerba can continue to impress as receiver than he may prove to be the more well-rounded player.
Szczerba, however, is not concerned with his "identity" as a tight end. He hopes that his skill set will show as long as he puts in the work.
"It doesn't matter if the fans think I'm a blocking tight end or a receiving tight end," Szczerba said. "It matters what the coaches think. I'm just going to come out here and do my best with blocking and receiving."
On Wednesday, the Cowboys signed a fifth tight end in Harry Flaherty. When a new player comes in whom the other tight ends have no prior relationship with, there is a unique conflict between viewing him as either a teammate or competition. Szczerba explains that he sees him as both.
"If he (Flaherty) has a question, obviously we're all going to help him," Szczerba said. "But we come out here and compete every day, so everything is a competition with this team." One thing that Flaherty cannot learn from Szczerba is size. Szczerba is the largest tight end on the roster not named Jason Witten. Head coach, Jason Garrett, likes to say that quality players do not grow on trees. Those as big as Szczerba certainly don't grow on trees either, which might make him quite the commodity.