(Editor's Note: This is the second of an 11-part series analyzing every position on the Cowboys roster, providing a quick look back before addressing the needs of each spot on the field and how it can be improved heading into the 2016 season. Today we examine the special teams.)
This is always a difficult roster area to dissect because it's a collection of several positions, and every year teams turn over about one-third of their rosters through free agency and the draft. The kicking operation is stable and intact for next season: kicker Dan Bailey is signed through 2020; punter Chris Jones and long snapper L.P. Ladouceur are signed through 2017. Three core contributors on the special teams units do have expiring contracts: safety Jeff Heath, linebacker Kyle Wilber and safety Danny McCray.
Bailey, most accurate field goal kicker in NFL history, represented the Cowboys' specialists in his first career Pro Bowl last weekend. His 30-of-32 field goal conversions in 2015 marked the fourth time by a kicker in team history and the second time in Bailey's career that he made 30 field goals. Jones had a career year in his fourth season as the full-time punter; he ranked third in the league with a career-best 42.5 net average, and he tied for 14th with 27 punts inside the 20-yard line. Rookie receiver Lucky Whitehead showed good potential as a kickoff and punt returner, the best example his 46-yard kickoff return in Week 13 that set up the Cowboys' winning field goal against the Washington Redskins. Whitehead averaged 29.4 yards on kickoff returns for the season.
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Special teams coordinator/assistant head coach Rich Bisaccia sets a high standard for the entire group. Clearly the kicking game performed at a good-to-elite level. One area for improvement is punt returns – collectively, Whitehead and fellow receiver Cole Beasley averaged 6.0 yards on 31 returns compared to a 9.2-yard team average in 2014. The coverage units didn't leak many big returns in 2015, but one in particular sticks out: former Cowboy Dwayne Harris' 100-yard kickoff return for the deciding score in the fourth quarter of a 27-20 loss to the Giants – tying New York's team record for longest kickoff return touchdown.
Whitehead's speed is a legitimate asset for Dallas on both offense and special teams, and that rookie experience in the return game following Lance Dunbar's Week 4 injury should make Whitehead more comfortable entering next season. Speaking of Dunbar, he missed the remainder of the 2015 season following ACL surgery and has an expiring contract. Re-signing Dunbar would give the Cowboys another field position threat on returns, but it remains to be seen what the running back's market value will be. From a coverage standpoint, the Cowboys didn't get dominant production from a single player to replace Harris' 18 special teams tackles from 2014. Three players tied for the team lead with 8, and two of those players, Jeff Heath and Kyle Wilber, now have expiring contracts. Even if both are re-signed for next season, the Cowboys will likely need contributions from their 2016 rookie class to help fortify the coverage units.
By The Numbers:
- Bailey's 93.8 season field goal percentage was a career high and the second highest in team history (Chris Boniol; 96.4 in 1995).
- Whitehead's longest kickoff return of the season was 79 yards in Week 9 against the Philadelphia Eagles.
- Jones has the Cowboys' all-time highest percentage of punts downed inside the opponents' 20 (39.1 percent; 88-of-225).