The Cowboys have completed their OTAs and minicamp practices. The offseason is history. Training camp in Oxnard is up next in late July.
The staff writers at DallasCowboys.com – Rob Phillips, David Helman, Nick Eatman and Bryan Broaddus – are attempting to answer 20 pressing questions as the team gets ready for camp and the 2016 season.
Today, our staff continues the series by evaluating the return game – both punt and kickoff – and how the Cowboys can possibly improve that area of the special teams in 2016.
No. 17 – How Will Cowboys Improve Subpar Return Game in 2016?
Bryan Broaddus: If this group is going to improve, I don't believe it's going to fall at the feet of Lucky Whitehead or any of the other returners on this squad. As a unit the overall blocking is going to have to improve first – if doesn't you could have Deion Sanders returning punts and it will not matter. In studying this area, there were far too many snaps where defenders were running free that were not accounted for. It is one thing for a returner with the skill of a Whitehead to make one man miss but two or three others - not happening. Both Whitehead and Beasley averaged 5.5 per return which ranked 29th in the league. Only Green Bay, Washington and San Diego were worse. There is no question Whitehead is capable of handling the job after what he showed in his work with the offense in the open field plus the opportunities he got on the kickoff returns. Improve the blocking from the core of the special teams and you we will see an improvement in field position for the offense.
Rob Phillips: Lucky Whitehead has competition to keep his spot on the wide receiver depth chart, but his return experience gives him an edge. If he's back in that role this season, I expect he'll be more productive. He needed time to get comfortable on punt and kickoff returns last year, particularly fielding punts in traffic. Eventually the Cowboys trusted him in that role and I think it gave him confidence. He says he gained about 10 pounds this offseason and worked on his improving his lower-leg strength so he can carry that extra weight. There's no question the team could use more dynamic returns – Whitehead's longest plays in 2015 were a 78-yard kickoff return and a 28-yard punt return – but no matter who's back there, the blocking will be the biggest key.
David Helman:There's a chance I'll be dead wrong, but I just don't see the Cowboys' return game improving by a significant amount this season. With Dwayne Harris departing for New York, the duo of Cole Beasley and Lucky Whitehead split return duties last year – and neither ever completely established himself. Whitehead showed flashes of the big-play ability that helped him make the roster, but his average of 5.8 yards per punt return wasn't exactly inspiring. I'm curious to see what rookies like Chris Brown and Ed Eagan might be capable of during training camp, but I'd honestly be stunned if someone other than Beasley or Whitehead is the primary return man when the season starts. If that turns out to be the case, I assume we'll be in for another season of decent – but unspectacular – returns.[embeddedad0]
Nick Eatman: Let's not forget, Dwayne Harris wasn't that great as a rookie. He eventually got released and spent some time on the practice squad before getting called back up to the roster. From there, he blossomed into one of the best all-around players the Cowboys have had in a while, especially as a dynamic returner. The Cowboys even felt the sting of a Harris return this year when his 100-yard kickoff return basically won the game up in the Meadowlands. My point to all of this? Well, if Harris did all of that after a subpar rookie season, just think what Lucky Whitehead can develop into. Whitehead had a couple of game-changing returns, including his kickoff return to midfield that set up the game-winning field goal in Washington. Whitehead is the only real burner on the receiving corps and he'll have to figure out how to use that speed to his advantage on offense. But on special teams, he should be even better in 2016 and I think he will be the reason the return unit shines next year.