The special teams was, quite simply, a complete disaster last season. Kickoff and punt coverage were terrible, big punt returns were nearly nonexistent, and kickoff returns became very average once Felix Jones was injured. I think every fan is probably happy to see a coaching change this offseason. Joe DeCamillis is being hailed as the savior of the special teams. I hope he is. A lot of what ailed the special teams last season can be cured with greater intensity and desire from the players. I think Joe DeCamillis can get everyone motivated to excel on special teams. There will be a lot to watch during training camp when it comes to the special teams unit.
Kickers - Normally there would only be one player to worry about here, but the Cowboys drafted a kickoff specialist/special teams ace which will probably result in two kickers being active on game day. I was initially upset by the draft pick for a kicker, but David Beuhler is much more than a kickoff specialist. He will also probably end up contributing on other coverage units as well because he is big, strong and athletic enough to help out in other ways than just kicking. As long as Nick Folk is fully recovered by the start of training camp it would take a miracle for a change to occur at kicker. Folk is a great kicker who has a knack for making the pressure kicks. I'll be watching Folk closely to see if his injury is fully healed. I am also very excited to see what exactly Buehler will bring to the table on special teams. His kickoffs in college were consistently through the end zone so hopefully he can continue to do the same at the NFL level.
Punter - Matt McBriar is one of the best punters in the league without question. He was another of the seemingly endless injury casualties last season. His foot is fully healed and now he has a metal plate on the top of his kicking foot that might even make him better than he was before his injury. From what was reported about his work during OTA's and other offseason work he is ready to go. I'll be watching him during camp to see if his leg looks as strong as it did prior to his injury last season.
Kick Returners - Felix Jones was off to a great start on kick returns last season before, guess what, another season ending injury for the Cowboys. He will most likely be back as the lead kick returner and is a threat to take it the distance whenever he touches the ball. Teams will be forced to directional kick and will probably accidentally kickoff out of bounds many times this season out of fear of a big return by Felix Jones. Isaiah Stanback is a pretty dynamic returner as well but he'll have to stay healthy to make the team. If Stanback doesn't make the team then there will be several players competing for the role of second returner. There are so many options here I don't want to name them all. The important thing here is that Felix Jones is ready to go all out on returns. If he can do it for 16 games then we'll see major improvement on kick returns this season regardless of who stands next to him on returns.
Punt Returner - It has been a long time since the Cowboys had a real threat returning punts. Terrance Newman has some great ability to return punts but has been so fragile in recent seasons that his returns are few and far between. Patrick Crayton doesn't muff many punts but he almost never gets more than 10 yards on a return. He is solid, but will never put fear into the coverage units. Mike Mickens flashed some return ability in college so I'm sure he'll get a chance to return some kicks during camp and in the preseason. Hopefully Mickens can be an upgrade as a returner but Crayton will win the job by default if no one proves to be capable of being trusted with the job. I'm hoping to see someone with some big play ability during camp but I'm not holding my breath.
Kickoff/Punt Coverage - To me a lot of this is simply about heart and desire. The infusion of youth on the roster will probably add a lot of desire because there are a lot of players who are hoping to make the roster by excelling on special teams. The competition will help spark some intensity. Joe DeCamillis will also be ending the directional kickoff tactics employed last season so Beuhler will be free to kick the ball deep. That should result in a dramatic improvement in opponent's starting field position. I also hope to see improved tackling. I would love to see players actually doing some real hitting and tackling during training camp.
The special teams has no where to go but up after their poor performance last year. I expect to see improvement across the board on special teams. I think a renewed focus on the coverage and return units will result in shorter fields for the offense and more stops for the defense with more field to defend. Special teams probably cost the team 2 games last year so any improvement is going to make a big difference in the outcome of the 2009 campaign for the Dallas Cowboys.