Intriguing Rico Gathers wants to eventually replace Jason Witten

Rico Gathers needs no external motivation. All the second-year tight end has to do is study the Dallas Cowboys' depth chart.

Jason Witten, 35, entering his 15th season, sits at the top. Then comes James Hanna, much more of a blocker than a receiver in his four seasons, and Geoff Swaim.

Hanna and Swaim have 40 career catches and no touchdowns in six combined seasons.

“I see them trying to bring me up, so I can truly show my potential that I showed all year long on the practice squad, when I created a lot of problems for our defense,” Gathers told J Dub City on ESPN Radio (KESN-FM 103.3) Thursday.

“I felt like toward the end of the year I was ready to be on the roster, and I felt like I should have been on the roster. This year is the year to come out and take over and show Rico Gathers is the heir apparent to Jason Witten. That’s how I feel, honestly.”

The Cowboys have big plans for the former Baylor basketball player, who averaged 11.2 points and 9.0 rebounds per game last season (his senior year) as a power forward.

Drafted in the sixth round, Gathers didn’t make the team, but the Cowboys stashed him on the practice squad. While most practice squad players earned $117,300, the Cowboys paid Gathers a first-year rookie salary of $449,990.

That’s how you know they had big plans for him.

Gathers, at 6-foot-6 and 281-pounds, spent last season learning the nuances of pro football -- from blocking technique to footwork to hand placement. He had to learn the offense and the route tree.

Gathers didn't play college or high school football.

“I went from a person who was completely oblivious about a situation to a person who feels like an animal,” Gathers said. “I feel like I’ve come into my own over the past year with my development from blocking to route running to making those athletic plays that you see on Sunday.”

The Cowboys will tell you they like Gathers, but they’re cautious with their projections because he’s so young. At worst, he’ll be a role player. At best, he could be a star.

Whether it’s Gathers or someone else, the Cowboys need to have a plan for Witten’s successor in place ASAP. If they don’t believe Gathers has that potential, they need to use a premium draft pick to acquire a tight end.

Right now, Witten is among the Cowboys’ most valuable players because no one on the roster comes close to replacing his skill set. He caught 69 passes for 693 yards and three touchdowns last season.

The yards and receptions represented his lowest totals since his rookie year, when he was a part-time player.

While his hands remain as dependable as ever, opponents don’t view him as a downfield threat. He averaged 9.8 yards per catch, only the fourth time he’s averaged fewer than 10.0 per catch.

Still, if he gets hurt and has to miss a substantial amount of time, it would hurt QB Dak Prescott, because Witten remains nearly unstoppable on Y-Option, his signature route in the middle of the field.

He’s the only complete tight end on the roster. Gathers wants to join him.

“I feel like this could be my breakout year and I can really contribute to this offense in the right situation,” Gathers said. “When I first jumped out there and let people know I wanted to play football, it was all a thought, but a thought without work is just a thought.

“Once I started working on my craft as a football player, that’s when everything started coming together.”

The play that showed Gathers is capable of playing in the NFL occurred in the Cowboys’ final preseason game.

Prescott rolled out and threw a pass to Gathers in the flat. Gathers turned his body to catch the ball and did a half cartwheel, using his left hand as a base. He regained his balance and immediately cut right, avoiding two defenders.

He ran through another tackle before being tackled after an 8-yard gain.

“That play right there gave me confidence going forward,” Gathers said. “Making my first catch, taking some blows and knocking some people over. That’s when I knew I was ready to be a football player.”

Now it’s about moving up the depth chart.