Offseason | 2021

Mick Shots: Now Turning Over Something Special

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FRISCO, Texas – Kicking around something special. Or at least it was. Like stably efficient at the highest level.

Yep, the kicking part of special teams.

And look, realize with the NFL Draft now two weeks away, specials teams, on the totem pole of importance, is down there at the bottom. Way behind defense (any part of it), backup quarterback and offensive tackle depth.

But think about this: From 2011 through the 2017 season, the Cowboys' kicking operation had to be one the NFL's best, if not the most predictable.

L.P. Ladouceur, as he had done for his entire 16-year career with the Cowboys, snapped for every field-goal attempt, extra-point attempt and punt, and did so perfectly. In the strike zone every time.

From 2011 through half of the 2017 season, Dan Bailey became the most accurate kicker in NFL history, making right at 90 percent of his field-goal attempts and 271 consecutive extra-point attempts until missing two in the span of the final four games that 2017 season.

And during those seven seasons the Cowboys only utilized three punters, Matt McBriar for the majority of the 2011 season, Brian Moorman for the 2012 season and then Chris Jones, punting as a backup in six games those two seasons, becoming the fulltime punter from 2013 through half of 2020.

Clockwork.

Well, not one of those guys will be with the Cowboys in 2021.

Bailey was cut before the start of the 2018 season, having missed his final four kicks in 2017 after returning from injury and just didn't seem to have the same disposition during camp the next summer.

Jones was placed on injured reserve eight games into the 2020 season, and is retiring following his two lowest averages of his career, 41.6 in 2019 punting through back and groin injuries and then 42.6 trying to gut through 2020 as long as he could.

Ladouceur, the last man standing, will not be re-signed for his 17th season, the Cowboys deciding to move on from the 40-year-old, who also might retire, although my guess is if a team has an emergency need he just might answer the call.

An amazing run.

And since, well, the Cowboys have now employed three kickers over the past three seasons: Brett Maher for 29 games over 2018-19; Kai Forbath for the final three games in 2019 and Greg Zuerlein in 2020, and figures to be the incumbent in 2021 after making 83 percent of his field-goal attempts and missing three of his 36 extra-point attempts.

Jones was replaced the final eight games of 2020, suffering from a sports hernia needing to be surgically repaired, the Cowboys turning to rookie Hunter Niswander for the final eight games. He's back for 2021, but will find himself in competition with 10th-year veteran Bryan Anger, with a 46.2-yard career average. Niswander finished 2020 with an impressive 47.2 average

And deep snapper Jake McQuaide, starting his 11th season after spending the past 10 with the Rams and eight of those working with Cowboys current special teams coach John Fassel, figures to be the deep snapper, but one under immense scrutiny following Ladouceur's perfection.

So ends this very special stability and productivity.

  • Another Off-Season? On Monday, April 19, the NFL's official offseason is supposed to begin, players allowed into facilities to begin voluntary strength and conditioning workouts under the jurisdiction of the strength and conditioning staffs. But the NFLPA is asking member players to boycott any in-person activity and maintains it wants another all-virtual offseason similar to what took place during the COVID-19 pandemic-restricted 2020 offseason. In a recent memo, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith and player president JC Tretter wrote, "We believe that having the same offseason rules as last year is in the best interest of players and gives us the best chance to completing a full NFL season in 2021." So far players from four teams as of Wednesday afternoon (Denver, Tampa Bay, Detroit and Seattle), along with "some" of the Patriots, say they will boycott any in-person, "voluntary" workouts this spring. No word from the Cowboys yet, though a group of players has been participating in what's called the "Captain Workouts" the past few weeks. In fact, the NFLPA is wanting the NFL to do away with all offseason workouts, maintaining the level of play this past season was at its highest without any of those in 2020. Hmmm. Like, did they watch some of these defenses? I'd have to sorely disagree.
  • Vaccination Priority: As vaccination rates rise, the NFL sent out a memo informing clubs their Tier 1 and Tier 2 employees are expected to be fully vaccinated if they are to work directly and in close proximity with the players. Employment is not going to be threatened for those refusing to be vaccinated, but will be highly encouraged and clubs are being asked to use their stadiums or training facilities as vaccination sites for club staff, players and eligible family members. Also, there will be relaxed COVID protocols from this past season for those employees fully vaccinated.
  • Running Reminder: Just a reminder with the NFL Draft now two weeks away and all the armchair GMs and cottage industry draft experts suggesting exactly what the Cowboys should do with the No. 10 pick on April 29: Take a corner, a linebacker, a defensive tackle or end. The Cowboys finished 31st this past season against the run, giving up 158.8 yards a game, seven times teams rushing for at least 150 yards against the Cowboys, and four of those for at least 208. Hmmmm.
  • Re-Habbing: Quarterback Dak Prescott continues to progress rehabbing from his gruesome season-ending ankle injury and subsequent surgeries with Cowboys associate trainer and director of rehabilitation Britt Brown. His footwork seems basically back to normal, the other day backpedaling and stepping up in between a series of vertically-placed ground pads while holding the ball and hooked to the resistance cords. And he is running hard. Same goes for the work of offensive tackle La'el Collins following his season-ending hip surgery.
  • Other Shots: Restricted from flying because of a medical ear issue, free-agent Keanu Neal finally made it here for the signing of his one-year contract he agreed to nearly a month ago … With Neal under contract, the Cowboys have the roster rights to 72 players, though the NFL has not ruled on the size of the offseason roster, whether staying with the COVID-expanded 90-man roster of last year or going back to the standard 80-man roster … Anger and tight end Jeremy Sprinkle have been signed to one-year, veteran-exception contracts that include a max $137,500 signing bonus and count just $987,500 against the cap … BTW, running back Ezekiel Elliott continues to regularly participate in the "Captains Workouts" conditioning drills and appears to have dropped a little weight … Same with Dak, who appears to have grown a taut six-pack.

Last word this week goes to Will McClay, Cowboys vice president of player personnel, as his scouting department continues to prepare for the draft under restricted circumstances. Remember, no NFL Scouting Combine, scouts unable to attend college practices this year, no 30 visits or Dallas Day workouts and Pro Days the only available in-person availability. Worse, no in-person, one-on-one interviews. As McClay told me for a piece in the 2021 Dallas Cowboys Draft Guide, now available for purchase online, "We try to do our best to find out who the guy is and what he's all about with the information you gather from the school sources. You try to figure out who the kid is. That is a very difficult part of this because it is people, about people. You have to believe in people.

"So we've had to try and find different ways to try and get that piece through Zoom calls and any interactions you can get."

As the world continues to turn.

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