Gavin Escobar scanned the field and saw man coverage. The big tight end sprinted up the seam and turned his head toward Chiefs quarterback Tyler Bray, who uncorked a 50/50 throw his way.
Escobar could see inside linebacker Terrance Smith closing in, but he plucked the ball out of the air and away from Smith, and continued running upfield, amid the clapping of coaches.
This was Tuesday, during the fourth of 10 voluntary offseason practices for the Chiefs, and while Escobar — a second-round pick of Dallas in 2013 — only caught 30 passes in his four years with the Cowboys, he’s already flashed the smooth route-running and natural pass-catching ability that once made him a top NFL prospect.
“I was just fortunate he threw it up there, because usually on tight coverage, you know, (quarterbacks don’t),” Escobar said of the big play. “That’s what I’m learning with this offense. They’ll throw it to you even if (you’re covered). They’ll let you go make a play.”
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This excites Escobar, 26, who takes his joy in football from beating players one-on-one and making big plays in the passing game.
“I definitely think this offense suits my abilities better,” Escobar said, when asked to compare the Chiefs’ offense to the one in Dallas. “Just knowing that (the defender) is doing what he can for me not to catch that ball, and for Tyler to put it in a place where I was able to make a play … just that feeling you get from running away from him, it’s like ‘Yeah, you can’t stop me.’ ”
Despite his draft pedigree, the former San Diego State product didn’t show that much during his time with the Cowboys. He could never advance beyond No. 2 on the depth chart, thanks in part to the presence of ageless 10-time Pro Bowler Jason Witten.
Unable to topple Witten, the 6-foot-6, 260-pound Escobar finished his Cowboys career with 30 catches for 333 yards and eight touchdowns. He even fell to No. 3 on the depth chart a year ago while he tried to work his way back to form after a torn right Achilles tendon in December 2015.
“I had very high expectations for myself, so if you look at the production, obviously, it’s kind of disappointing,” Escobar said. “But I just viewed it as, I just took advantage of the opportunities I had. When the ball was thrown my way, I generally made the play.”
Those opportunities dwindled last season, when he says he tried to rush his way back from the Achilles injury in what he knew would likely be a contract year and only caught four passes for 30 yards and a touchdown in 16 games.
“I kind of rushed it back,” Escobar said. “Every week last year, I was just grinding to get ready to go. … I didn’t want to miss time, I didn’t want to be on the PUP list.”
Escobar finally got to rest this offseason. He says he feels a little older after the injury, but he thinks he takes care of his body better these days because of that experience.
“They’ve got a ton of stuff in the training room that gets you loosened up,” Escobar said of the Chiefs.
While Escobar obviously had some tough times in Dallas, playing behind Witten did have its advantages. For one, he got to see the Pro Bowler’s elite traits first-hand — the indefatigable toughness, the non-stop motor, the relentless strive for perfection.
“I mean, it was good to learn from,” Escobar said. “But obviously, getting on the field and getting more opportunities were tough, as a competitor.”
Escobar also got to watch Witten block, which is something Escobar wasn’t asked to do much in college. In Dallas, tight ends have to block just to get on the field, and Witten was, in Escobar’s words, “almost another lineman” at times.
“The expectations I had the last four years, blocking, have already translated over here,” Escobar said. “I just feel really comfortable blocking. … I’m not a guy who’s gonna take a D-end and shove him 5 yards down the field, but really, we’re just trying to get in the way and be a pest and not get pushed back.”
The Chiefs saw enough in Escobar over the previous four years to sign him to a one-year “prove it” deal this offseason. And there’s little doubt he does have upside as a receiving tight end; Escobar had lots of red-zone packages in Dallas, which explains why nearly a third of his NFL catches have gone for touchdowns.
Add that to the fact the Chiefs’ No. 2 tight end a year ago, Demetrius Harris, was arrested this offseason for suspected possession of marijuana, and it’s safe to assume that Escobar could potentially be viewed as veteran insurance for both Harris and starter Travis Kelce, who will sit out offseason practices as he recovers from shoulder surgery.
With Harris absent from Tuesday’s practice due to a personal matter, it was Escobar and youngster Ross Travis — another big, athletic target — who earned the first-string reps.
That duty jibed with the only message Chiefs tight end coach Tom Melvin gave Escobar when he joined the club about his potential role, which was that he would have an opportunity to compete for a spot on the team.
“And that’s all I really needed,” Escobar said. “That’s all I want.”
So far, so good. Escobar likes the players, and he’s already mentioned the club’s family atmosphere. The coaches seem to be close, and every practice is competitive.
“It’s a fresh start,” Escobar said. “I wish (things in Dallas) would have gone better, obviously. But I’m happy I ended up here … I already feel at home.”