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Progress Report: A Nice Surprise In Niswander


(Editor's Note: NFL rosters change wildly from year to year. This year will be no different, as the Cowboys seek to upgrade their roster via free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft. Still, a large percentage of their roster is already in place, and they'll have plenty of work to do to improve last season's 6-10 record. In the coming weeks, the staff of will evaluate those players who are already under contract, examining their past performance and future outlook. Today, we continue the series with punter Hunter Niswander.)

The Good: An unquestionable success story during an otherwise forgettable season.

Hunter Niswander had been out of the NFL for almost three years when the Cowboys found him. He originally went undrafted out of Northwestern in 2018, and he didn't receive much in the way of interest from the NFL after a rookie tryout with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

He was drafted into the XFL around this time last year, but the sudden outbreak of COVID-19 forced the league to cancel its season after just five games. Niswander didn't have a path back into football – until an injury to Chris Jones left the Cowboys in need of a punter.

Throughout the second half of the season, Niswander filled in admirably. He only punted 26 times on the year, but his net average of 42 yards per punt would put him inside the top 10 in the NFL. He also pinned 10 of those 26 punts inside the 20-yard line, which is a solid number for a first-year punter.

The Bad: The fake punt against Washington on Thanksgiving was an unmitigated disaster, though it feels harsh to criticize Niswander for that.

The Cowboys were trailing, 20-16, early in the fourth quarter and faced 4th-and-10 from their own 24-yard line. Rather than punt, the Cowboys opted for an ambitious fake that saw Cedrick Wilson take a handoff 10 yard behind the line of scrimmage.

The play design called for Wilson to throw to Niswander, who had leaked out into the flat. Unfortunately, Washington's punt gunner played it perfectly and stayed home to cover Niswander, and Wilson was forced to scramble for no gain.

One play later, Washington scored to extend their lead, and the game was effectively over. None of this is Niswander's fault, but it is a moment that will be remembered for a long time.

Best Of 2020: Niswander flipped the field like an experienced veteran in the Week 16 win against Philadelphia.

The Cowboys only needed him four times in the game, but he delivered with each kick, averaging 45 yards per punt with an impressive long of 56.

Nearly every punt pinned the Eagles deep in their own territory. Three of his four kicks were not returned, and two of them forced Jalen Hurts to begin drives on his own 14 and his own 13. For the day, Philadelphia only started 3 of 13 possessions in favorable territory.

Contract Consideration: It's common to see teams sign unheralded players to inexpensive, multi-year contracts – and this is exactly why.

The Cowboys signed Niswander for two years back in October, and now they have him under contract for the 2021 season. It's also worth noting that he'd be an exclusive rights free agent in the spring of 2022 – so the Cowboys control his rights for the foreseeable future.

What's Next: We're about to find out just how much the Cowboys liked Niswander's performance.

Obviously, Chris Jones has held the punter position in Dallas for quite some time, as he originally took charge of the role full-time in 2013.

It's fair to note that Jones has battled injury issues. After all, the reason Niswander showed up was because Jones needed to have abdominal surgery.

The fact remains that Jones' performance had dipped in recent years. Niswander's net average and his number of punts downed inside the 20-yard line were both improvements over what the veteran has provided in recent seasons.

Jones still has one year remaining on the extension he signed back in 2017, but the Cowboys could get out of that without much difficulty.

Is it possible we're looking at a changing of the guard in 2021, or at least a training camp competition? Time will tell.

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