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Problem Spots: Finding A New Return Man


FRISCO, Texas – The major moves are done, for the most part.

Sure, talent acquisition is 365 days a year, as the Cowboys' front office likes to say. But with the 2022 NFL Draft in the rearview mirror, the roster that's about to work through OTAs is the one that will open the season in September, with perhaps one or two exceptions.

That's an interesting thought, because there are several roles within this team that don't look settled – at least not yet.

Today, let's take a look at the returner positions, which Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy himself referred to as "something we've got to get answered."

What's The Issue: The duo of CeeDee Lamb and Cedrick Wilson have handled punt returns for the Cowboys for two years. Wilson is obviously off to Miami on a new contract, and Lamb has now stepped into the No. 1 receiver role created by the trade of Amari Cooper to Cleveland.

Simply put, the Cowboys likely don't want to continue using Lamb in that role – at least not as much as they had been. Without him, there aren't many players on the roster who have done the job in an NFL game.

Who Can Fix It: Let's start with the handful of experienced options. Tony Pollard has been one of the Cowboys' primary kick returners since his rookie year, with mixed results. He has also taken practice snaps at punt returner at various times over the years. The two jobs aren't the same, but it's at least conceivable that the Cowboys could give Pollard the extra work during the spring and summer with an eye on having him ready for the season. Something similar could be said for Rico Dowdle, who is returning from a hip injury and has kick return experience.

Trevon Diggs returned two punts in 2021, and also has plenty of experience doing it from his college days at Alabama. His background as a converted wide receiver is evident when you see him move with the ball in his hands. The only question is whether the Cowboys would feel comfortable exposing their No. 1 cornerback to injury by putting him in harm's way a handful of times per game. Jourdan Lewis also has limited experience as a returner, though it was primarily kick return duties he handled during his college career at Michigan.

Other than that handful of names, the coaching staff might be looking at breaking in a brand-new return man. McCarthy talked during rookie minicamp about wanting to see all of his newcomers track and field both punts and kicks, so he can get a feel for how they handle it.

There's no shortage of athletes on an NFL roster. Perhaps Jalen Tolbert, James Washington or Simi Fehoko can step up and grab the job – though none of them have a ton of experience. Undrafted players like Dontario Drummond, Ty Fryfogle and Juanyeh Thomas have limited experience as returners, and perhaps they could use that to give them a leg up in the battle for a roster spot.

Like McCarthy said, it's a question that needs to be answered, given the lack of readymade options available.

Outside Considerations: Would the front office consider bringing in a veteran specifically to fill the return role?

It seems a bit unlikely. And when you consider the available options, maybe even less likely. There are a handful of guys that fit the description. Dede Westbrook returned 22 punts for Minnesota last season. Similarly, Chester Rogers averaged 10 yards per return for Tennessee on 30 attempts last year. Former Cowboy Cole Beasley didn't return punts during his time in Buffalo, but he did do the job in Dallas for five years.

There are options, but would the Cowboys be willing to spend the extra money purely for that role? It seems like it makes more sense to develop an option that's already on the roster.

Best Guess: It seems like a decent bet that Lamb will still have some sort of role to play. Perhaps he won't field every punt, but at the very least he can be the "safe return" man, whose job is to cleanly field a punt without trying to gain yardage.

Beyond that, though, it really does feel wide open. If we're aiming for a best guess, it seems like a good idea to at least give Pollard the opportunity. He's the most experienced player behind Lamb. And if he proves himself capable of handling the job, that's an extra 4-6 touches per game for one of the Cowboys' best playmakers.

This feels like a situation that will truly be determined by training camp and the preseason.