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Cowboys have a stake in growing Gavin Escobar's role

OXNARD, Calif. -- There are times, like Sunday's practice, where you can see why the Dallas Cowboys drafted Gavin Escobar in the second round in 2013.

Of course, it was red zone work where his 6-foot-6 frame makes him a nightmare matchup for defensive backs. In one-on-one drills, Escobar could not be stopped. In the compete period, he plucked a Tony Romo fade over safety Jeff Heath for a touchdown. He had a touchdown negated in team drills because of a push off on Barry Church but there was no doubt Romo was going to him before the ball was snapped.

"I like it because I feel like that's where my strengths are," Escobar said. "My size. My catching ability. I feel comfortable down in there."

Escobar had four touchdown catches last season and all but one came in the red zone. Of his six career touchdowns, four have come from inside the opponent's 20-yard line.

With Dez Bryant, who led the NFL in touchdown catches with 16, and DeMarco Murray scoring 13 rushing touchdowns in 2014, touches might seem scarce but Escobar looks at it another way.

"Dez is going to see a lot of double coverage in the red zone," he said, "so we've got to take advantage of our one on ones."

As he enters his third season, Escobar has just 18 career catches for 239 yards. He has played in every game with two starts, but he was unable to unseat James Hanna as the No. 2 tight end behind Jason Witten in the running game last season.

Run blocking was not Escobar's strong suit when he came to the Cowboys and they continue to work with him on it. He had a key block on a Joseph Randle run in Sunday's practice but he also had a holding penalty in the first preseason game against the San Diego Chargers.

"I mean if I look at film from two years ago, I've definitely made a lot of strides," Escobar said.

What Escobar suffers from mostly, however, is the same thing that afflicted Anthony Fasano and Martellus Bennett, second-round picks in 2006 and '08. Because Witten does not come off the field, all three have been labeled disappointments.

After being traded to Miami, Fasano has had a solid career. Bennett made the Pro Bowl last year with the Chicago Bears after a productive season with the New York Giants in 2012.

"Gavin's arc has a lot to do with the guy who is our starting tight end," coach Jason Garrett said. "[Witten] is pretty good. It's hard to get those reps when Jason Witten is in front of you. We recognize that. It's hard for James Hanna to get those reps. To a certain extent it's hard for [Geoff] Swaim to get those reps. The guy [Witten] is good and he plays every snap. He's played every snap for a long, long time around here."

While Garrett has seen improvement, the lack of statistical production leads to an unfair labeling that Escobar has not lived up to expectations when the team has not found a way to utilize him best. When he was picked, the Cowboys were going to move to an offense that featured two tight ends the way the New England Patriots featured Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

It was the same thought Bill Parcells had when the Cowboys took Fasano in 2006 and Wade Phillips had when the Cowboys took Bennett in 2008.

It didn't work for them with the Cowboys. Escobar has two more seasons to make it work for him.

"A lot of people say when you drafted a guy that high, they want him to come in and be an immediate starter," Garrett said. "What he needs to focus on is taking full advantage of his opportunities and trying to get better each and every day, and he's certainly done that. He's the right kind of guy. He works really hard at getting better every day and we've seen that progress. When he gets an opportunity, he'll be ready for it. ...I certainly have no regrets about us drafting him. We like what he's done and he's going to be better and better each and every day he's out there."