Meet Rico Gathers, the Best Bet to Be the NFL's Next Antonio Gates

Sean TomlinsonNFL AnalystApril 22, 2016

Baylor forward Rico Gathers reacts to a 3-point play against West Virginia in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, March 5, 2016, in Waco, Texas. (AP Photo/Rod Aydelotte)
Rod Aydelotte/Associated Press

When you ask Rico Gathers to choose his first love between basketball and football, the answer is instant. It comes without a beat of hesitation. 

"Football."

Then when you ask him about the last football game he played, the details flow from a memory that’s etched deep.

"My last game was the junior high championship game," he told Bleacher Report. "It started out with me scoring four straight touchdowns in the first half. They basically all came on the same play. We just kept going to it, and then suddenly it was 28-0."

This is when you stop, and do a double or triple take if you know little about Gathers. Something doesn’t quite add up with that timeline.

And maybe you don’t know much about him. Maybe you’re only a casual college basketball follower.

Let’s have Gathers introduce himself a little more then.

"I’ve studied as much film of Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski and Tony Gonzalez as I can," he said. "I studied them all because I feel like I fit the same frame."

That’s just a peek into Gathers’ mindset as he prepares to take his own unique journey down a well-worn path, but one still filled with career quicksand.

The former Baylor power forward is trying to shimmy through the basketball-to-football tight end pipeline, a trail blazed long ago by future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez. The San Diego Chargers’ Antonio Gates followed, and so did the Seattle Seahawks’ Jimmy Graham, among others.

Those are the names that slide off Gathers’ tongue immediately when discussing his own tight end ambitions. They’re also the names that usually flash in your mind right away when naming successful basketball-to-football tight end transfers.

But Gathers is different. Among a group of triangular-shaped basketball pegs trying to fit into square football holes, he’s the rectangle.  

He’s the outcast in a group of outliers, with Gates the only real historical comparison to fall back on. Graham at least played one year of college football and was invited to the Senior Bowl, and Gonzalez logged three seasons for the California Golden Bears, recording 500-plus receiving yards in the last two. Gates, meanwhile, didn’t take the field once at Kent State, and instead stayed focused on basketball before holding a private workout prior to the draft.

Where did Gathers’ last football snap take place, along with those four touchdowns? East St. John Elementary. That’s certainly not some SEC football powerhouse—unless conference realignment takes a truly radical turn someday.

Gathers hasn’t played competitive football since he was on a middle school field at the age of 14. In the years since, he shifted his athletic focus to the hard court, and in 2011 he was named Louisiana’s Mr. Basketball. The award given to the best high school basketball player in the state has also been handed to Glen "Big Baby" Davis and three-time NBA All-Star Paul Millsap.

But even as Gathers kept bruising bodies down low over four years for Baylor while leading his conference in offensive rebounds during the 2015-16 season (128) and in total rebounds the previous year (394), he always had his first love in mind.

The NFL knew it, too. That’s why the talent gem search often took scouts to a foreign place with squeaks and shot clocks. They were there to watch a chiseled athletic specimen who stands 6’7” and weighs 278 pounds.

They were there to watch Rico Gathers.

Or rather, they found themselves at a basketball game to dream, to wish and to hope. Just as Gathers is doing now, though he’s skipping the last part.

Gathers isn’t hoping, or lacking for confidence, despite his lengthy eight-year layoff from football. He set a plan in motion the moment Baylor was bounced by Yale in a shocking first-round NCAA tournament upset on March 17. It’s a plan that will culminate on April 25 when Gathers holds a private workout for NFL scouts.

He’s going back to his football roots, aiming to transition from rebounder to pass-snatcher, all while making his lack of high-level experience in the sport an afterthought.

It’s a path Gathers had tucked away in the back of his mind ever since he last laced up cleats, a path that became a physical necessity.

 

A growth spurt, and a plan

Gathers was a wide receiver during that final game at East St. John Elementary. But he wasn’t just your typical sprouting teenage beanpole. His body had already stretched to 6’3” at the time, and by the end of eighth grade, he passed the 6’5” mark.

Suddenly he was the long-limbed spider-like human who towered high above those of merely average height, which led to a common growth-spurt problem of fumbling clumsiness. Gathers’ mind hadn’t caught up to his body yet.

"Whenever you grow quickly to like 6'5 ½" at an early age, your coordination will be off a little bit," Gathers said. "It happens so fast, then you reach the point where you’re thinking, 'All right, cool, I'm 6'5" now, but I haven’t adjusted physically yet, and I’ll have guys diving at my knees in football.' So staying with football would have made me more prone to injury at an early age.

"To avoid that we thought it was best for me to go ahead and play basketball, because it isn’t as physical," he added. "It was a best-case scenario, even though I brought my own physicality to basketball."

Yes, you certainly did that, Rico. Whether it was blocking...

Or making posters.

The "we" Gathers refers to is his older brother Greg, who planted the seed for Rico’s football passion. Greg starred at Georgia Tech and was an All-American defensive end.

"I used to go to a lot of his games," Rico said. "Watching him is where I got my ambition to play football. The love of the game really started young."

The younger Gathers brother first put pads on at the age of seven. He played pretty much everywhere, including quarterback, his first true position. Gathers would play wherever his coaches thought they would gain an advantage by utilizing their quickly growing cloud-scraper.

But then the two brothers had a long conversation, where one tapped into the other’s athletic experience. It came after Rico was a Pop Warner and middle school football stud.

"My brother and I sat around and talked, and at first my intention was to go to my brother’s high school to play both sports," Rico said. "But after a while we decided it was probably best for me to focus on basketball because I had that unique growth spurt at an early age right before high school.

"A lot of the coaches in my area wanted me to play football for them, trying to get me to come to their school. Every school in the Greater New Orleans area wanted me for football."

That didn’t stop once Gathers stuck with basketball and went to Baylor. Art Briles, Baylor's head football coach, was chasing after the rebound machine as recently as mid-March, making a final effort to convince Gathers that one year of college football is the best direction for his development.

On March 16—one day before Baylor’s first and only NCAA tournament game—Briles told Craig Smoak of 1660 ESPN that he was "still in discussions" with Gathers about playing football in 2016:

Gathers considered that path. But the allure of a new challenge was too difficult to resist first as an athlete, and then simply as a person ready to move on from college into the next chapter of his life.

"The thing with me is I’ve been to college for four years, and I’ve enjoyed my time in college," said Gathers. "Now it’s time to experience new scenery, and what bigger scenery could you experience than being a basketball player trying to enter into the NFL?

"When you think about it, if I were to come back and play a year of football, I wouldn’t be a basketball player anymore. I’d just be another football guy. So why not take the opportunity to be the next basketball player to make that jump?"

A sense of adventure comes through when Gathers speaks. Football was always hovering in his mind, sometimes pushed to the back, and other times right there in his immediate thoughts. Like pretty much every college basketball standout, he wanted to be a one-and-done or two-and-done player, which didn’t happen because of both a "tweener" label and Baylor’s depth at Gathers’ position.

So he waited, and let his football aspirations simmer a little longer as doubters fueled his basketball drive.

"Every game it was either Rico Gathers could be a tight end or defensive end, or Rico Gathers maybe could play in the NBA, but he’s a little bit undersized," he said. "That kind of was my motivation to keep playing basketball, because I felt like I needed to prove myself. I had been thinking about transitioning into football since after my sophomore year."

Now he’s talking about grand goals, and he can offer a clean football canvas to an open-minded, creative coach out there who wants to begin his Gathers experiment. The financial cost will be minimal, with Gathers almost surely set to be an undrafted free agent if he’s on a roster.

But the cost in time and human resources might be substantial enough to scare teams off.

Gathers led the Big 12 in total rebounds (394) during the 2014-15 season, a year when he also averaged 11.6 points per game.
Gathers led the Big 12 in total rebounds (394) during the 2014-15 season, a year when he also averaged 11.6 points per game.Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

 

The road ahead

Gathers isn’t cocky. He’s confident, and there’s always a distinct difference. Confidence can’t be in short supply when you’re attempting to excel in two sports, and being a high-caliber athlete in one is daunting enough.

"I want to become a deep threat for somebody’s franchise quarterback," Gathers said. "I really see myself stretching out the defense and opening up a lot of things for any team’s offense"

In theory he has the raw tools to be a useful asset, at the very least. He’s physically imposing and has two thick tree limbs for arms. He also knows how to use that bulked-up frame, which is one of the boxes scouts can check off just by watching basketball highlights. His drive to win physical battles should be clear long before NFL decision-makers arrive at Gathers’ personal pro day workout.

He’s shown an understanding of how to use his upper body effectively while boxing out opponents and grappling for rebounds. On some basic but critical level, that skill is transferable in the red zone, up the seam or whenever a tight end needs to fight for the ball while keeping a defender blocked off.

But beyond that, scouts and personnel men at Gathers’ workout will be forced to use their imaginations, projecting pure athleticism onto an unknown future.

Game film is the largest tool in any scouting toolbox. Despite the dread and panic after poor results during the scouting combine, a slow 40-yard dash time alone doesn’t derail NFL dreams. No, draft stocks plummet once evaluators are driven back to the game film after that slow time and then discover fatal performance flaws.

So then what happens when there is no game film? And what, exactly, will scouts at Gathers’ pro day be looking for to support their faith in him?

"When you’re talking about a guy who hasn’t played at all, you’re looking for the hand-eye coordination, and the actual ball skills," Phil Savage, who was an NFL talent evaluator for 19 years and spent three seasons as general manager of the Cleveland Browns, told Bleacher Report. "How well does he catch the ball? Is he natural doing it, or is it somewhat forced? You’re judging the hands, which is something you can definitely get out of a workout.

"Catching ability can be assessed, and the approach to the ball. And then just the idea of getting out in space. Can he drop his weight, make a cut and change direction? Can he track the ball in the air? How natural does he look doing those things? Things like running down the seam and catching the ball over his shoulder. I think you can definitely forecast some potential in all those situations."

Then there’s the leg work that took place prior to Gathers’ workout. When inquiring football eyes were watching him in his natural athletic habitat on the basketball court, just as the Bills’ scout did, what were they evaluating?

"I think it’s just like high school recruiting," Savage said. "Oftentimes college coaches will go watch a prospect play basketball, and you’re looking for the agility, balance, body quickness and hand-eye coordination, whether he’s dribbling or catching a pass."

If and when Gathers does find an NFL home, he won’t be your typical late-round pick or undrafted free agent (again, it’s far, far more likely he goes the latter route). He’ll be a project, and projects require patience.

Assigning a number to the long percentage odds stacked against Gathers is difficult, only because past precedents barely exist. Gates going from no college football to sitting with the third-most post-merger receiving yards among TEs is the scouting equivalent of getting two royal flushes in one night of profitable poker.

This sign that did viral laps around the Internet gives us a rough idea. It’s based on statistics from a 2013 NCAA study, which revealed that only 1.6 percent of fourth-year seniors went on to play in the NFL.

Before you feel the urge to repeat the most repeated line from a classic moment in film history, please know that if he’s signed, Gathers will be the exception to any and all rules.

He has to be, because otherwise all parties involved—the player, the front office and especially the coaches who put time and painstaking effort into Gathers' development—will be short-changed.

"When you sign up for this attempt, you’re signing up to give him a year at least, unless the player absolutely falls flat on his face," Savage said.

"With the draft at the end of April and then you sign him right after, we’re talking about the full year, plus the following OTAs, minicamps and into training camp. So you’re actually looking at about a 14- to 16-month effort to see if this signing is going to be fruitful for your organization."

A team has to take the long view with Gathers. At minimum he would still need to flash legitimate potential early. But there's only so much that can reasonably be expected over the four months between the draft and the end of training camp.

From a scouting and coaching perspective, you’re signing up for a lottery ticket with Gathers. A question is central to that gamble: Is his appealing athletic ability enough to warrant a roster spot, development time and valuable coaching resources? The last item is especially limited due to offseason practice restrictions in the 2011 collective bargaining agreement.

Gathers doesn’t present a financial risk. Instead, there’s a time risk, and with coaches always trying to duck a job ax, the constantly ticking offseason clock can be just as important as any dollar investment.

"There are certain teams that will say, 'hey, there are 128 major college football teams, and several hundred more lower programs that may have draftable prospects,'" Savage said. "Surely we can find somebody in that group instead."

Mining basketball talent isn’t a new process. Broadly, neither is searching for talent in even more exotic locations. Jarryd Hayne, a former National Rugby League megastar, made the San Francisco 49ers roster out of training camp in 2015, through he was later demoted to the practice squad.

Scouring those far-reaching talent nooks and crannies is becoming more common after the success of Gates and Graham.

"Now more than ever before there are certain teams that, when their scouts are on campus, they’ll make a contact in basketball just to ask if there’s anybody who might fit that mold," said Savage.

The door could be open for Gathers then. All he needs to do is find one open-minded general manager, and one coaching staff eager to work with the platter of talent he offers.

He has to highlight his crossover basketball skills, while also refreshing his football body and movements. He needs to reapply himself as an athlete over a short period of time, all under the guidance of Duke Rousse.

 

A quick turnaround and boundless optimism

Gathers didn’t need much time off after his basketball season came to an end. He didn’t want much, either. He let his body recover for just a few days and then contacted Rousse, who runs The Duke Academy.

Gathers has been working with Rousse since high school, but this time his training mission was different.

"He sent me a text out of the blue that said, 'Coach, I think I want to go ahead and play tight end in the NFL,'" said Rousse, who also spoke with Bleacher Report.

With that, the work of building on Gathers' athletic foundation began. To Gathers, some of the most transferable skills are those that involve physical play. Which is good, because football has just a little bit more contact.

"Being able to run a route and bump a defender off of you and break in another direction is basically like running in for a rebound and fighting for the inside position," said Gathers.

"Then there’s when you’re trying to get the inside or outside release as a receiver. You’re using your hands to swim or rip across, and again get that position you’re looking for. That’s the same stuff I was doing on the court, whether it was trying to get a rebound or get position down low. That’s the easy stuff right there."

The not-so easy stuff? The detailed football skills, a lot of which we take for granted while watching chaos unfold on Sundays. It’s been eight years since Gathers last ran a route during live game action, and eight years since he caught a pass up the middle while bracing for contact.

He can still do all of those things and more. But it just may take patience as Gathers returns to not just his football body, but also, and perhaps more importantly, his football mind.

"Things like catching a ball and actually getting hit," Rousse said. "How do you respond to that? That’s something we can’t practice, and yet he did play football up until he was 14 years old. So he’s been hit before, and he understands the game. He just hasn’t done the position-specific work in a while and concentrated on how to run proper routes, or from a technical standpoint how to block a defensive end.

"He’s a rookie at all that stuff right now. So he’ll have to learn his position, and master his craft."

Those are all details that will come back over time once Gathers reignites his mental muscle memory. Or at least that’s the aim. The mental gauntlet may be even more challenging than the physical one ahead of Gathers.

As he talks about an intense focus on position-specific work—including finer movements like breaking down a route and lowering your hips—the 22-year-old emphasized the physical advantage his basketball path has given him.

"I didn’t go through nearly as much wear and tear after choosing to not play football in high school and college," he said. "People ask me about the draft now, and I say, 'Shoot, I’m the most durable person in the draft because I haven’t had to endure the same nicks and bruises.'"

Gathers missed minimal time at Baylor, averaging 35 games played per season over his four years.
Gathers missed minimal time at Baylor, averaging 35 games played per season over his four years.Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

Which brings us back to the image of Gathers and his clean, blank slate.

Only one team has to see beauty in what Rousse described as "a basketball player in a football body."

Only one team has to fall in love with his explosive athleticism.

Only one team has to have confidence in its coaching staff’s ability to sculpt an effective tight end out of Gathers, guiding him as his adjustment continues.

And only one team needs to justify investing time in Gathers for this latest basketball-to-football deep dive.

Gathers didn’t see himself as a basketball player before. He was an athlete.

"I play with a certain mindset," he said. "I didn't play basketball as a basketball player. I played basketball as a hard worker and hustler.

"In football I’ll be looking to be a dominant person, period. That’s the thing about football: It’s a barbaric sport. Sure, you have your skill-position guys, but at the end of the day most of it is about 'want-to.' If you see that ball in the air coming your way, and you want to snatch it and make a play, then you’re going to do it."

For Gathers, his entire athletic life has been defined by "want-to."

A lanky 14-year-old still growing into his body decided football would be too punishing at that time. He wanted to physically dominate the basketball court instead. So he did, and he led the nation in offensive rebound percentage (18.5) during his final season at Baylor.

Now he wants to be the next "G."

"It’s real weird how all of these great tight ends, they all have the same initial in their last name. It’s that 'G,'" he said.

"We talk about Gates, Graham, Gronkowski and Gonzalez. And now, Rico Gathers."

He said that second part with a chuckle. Defensive backs and linebackers won't share the same laughter if he becomes even half as talented as those tight end legends.