The last remaining piece of the roster that I need to examine is special teams. This is the time of year that most people tend to forget about special teams. But after the mistakes on special teams last season that cost the Cowboys several games I am sure that the coaches and front office personnel are looking at ways to improve the special teams. Bringing in the fiery Joe DeCamillus was the first step, but there are some areas of need that will need to be addressed in the draft or via free agency. Let's look at all of the key pieces of the special teams.
Kicker: Obviously this is one area where things are in good shape. Folk has proven to be an excellent kicker over the last two years. The only concern here would be Folk's lack of distance on kickoffs but that may be fixed if directional kicking is eliminated from the kickoff coverage.
Punter: As long as Matt McBriar comes back healthy and can regain his pre-injury form the Cowboys will have one of the best punters in the NFL. The value of Matt McBriar's leg was shown when he went down on the blocked punt against Arizona. There was a notable loss in field position on every punt after McBriar went out with his injury.
Deep Snapper: Again, the Cowboys have no need at this position. L.P. Ladouceur has been consistently good for his entire career. The Cowboys are lucky to have a guy who is so reliable at deep snapper.
Punt/Kickoff Coverage: This is an area where the Cowboys could use a major upgrade. The statistics show that the Cowboys had a good kick coverage unit in 2008 but they always seemed to give up the big returns at the worst possible times. Hopefully the rookies brought in this offseason will have good kick coverage skills. It always seemed like the opposing returner was one man away from breaking the kick or punt return all the way. Poor tackling showed up on kick/punt coverage as well and hopefully a more physical training camp will help address the tackling issue on special teams as well.
Kick Returner: Several players on the roster have shown the ability to be a threat returning kicks, but there are questions about all of them continuing as returners now that they have moved up the depth chart on offense. Felix Jones is a threat to go all the way on every return but you have to wonder if the Cowboys want to risk getting him injured on special teams after last season. Miles Austin has also been a good returner at times but he will probably be the #2 or #3 receiver and is seems unlikely that he will be returning kicks especially after his injuries in 2008. Isaiah Stanback has shown a burst and the vision required of a great returner but he has never been able to stay healthy. I would expect the Cowboys to draft a receiver with great return skills and speed to fill the role of kick returner or at least a second returner in the event that Felix Jones returns to his role as kick returner. I am still keeping my fingers crossed that Keith Davis will come back to captain the special teams.
Punt Returner: The only remaining punt returners on the roster with experience are Patrick Crayton and Terrance Newman. Patrick Crayton does a great job fielding punts but very rarely makes even one man miss before going down. He also has a tendency to carry the ball away from his body which makes me cringe in fear every time he returns a punt. Terrance Newman has too much trouble staying healthy at this point in his career to risk putting him on the field for punt returns. I am hoping that the Cowboys draft a player who has the ability to break a return at any time. If not, I would guess they will just continue with the Patrick Crayton fair catch/8 yard return from the last two years.
It is important to remember how much the special teams hurt the Cowboys last season. I believe the new attitude that Joe DeCamillus will instill in the special teams players will be the biggest difference fans will notice. The more you look at the roster the more it becomes apparant that the Cowboys need to draft a guy who can be the speed receiver/punt returner/kick returner. That won't be an easy guy to find but I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Jerry Jones trade around at some point in the draft to find a player to fill the role. I would hope that the return man/speed receiver can be found using the best available player strategy and maybe Jerry Jones will make a move for a player if someone unexpectedly drops down in the draft who can fill the role. The rest of the players drafted need to be ready and willing to man the coverage unit. Since the offense and defense have most of the major holes filled, the Cowboys need to be drafting players who are willing to step in as role players. This means blue collar, hard working players with a little bit of a chip on their shoulder and a little dash of crazy to allow them to excel on special teams.
Related Blog Postings:
Remaining Holes on the Roster - Offense
Remaining Holes on the Roster - Defense