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ST: Who Will Be The Aces Up Fassel’s Sleeve?
The Cowboys need improvements in many areas heading into this season, but special teams is right at the top. So how the Cowboys going about this rebuilding effort?
By Nick Eatman Jun 05, 2020

As we shift into the summer months of the Cowboys' offseason, we will continue to analyze the entire roster with our continued position series.   

Each day, we will dissect a different aspect about the position, ranging from position battles, to under-the-radar players to simply answering questions that have yet to be resolved.

This week, we're taking a closer look at the entire special teams unit, a group that cost the Cowboys several times last season.

Need To Figure Out

Who Will Be The Aces Up Fassel’s Sleeve?

Need To Figure Out:

While the new coach has already been established back in January, he might have an idea who is top players will be, but those things will have to be sorted out on the field.

Some 10 years ago, there's no way the Cowboys could've predicted than an undrafted rookie from LSU would end up making the team, much less lead the team in tackles. But that's what Danny McCray did, and who knows what player will come out of nowhere this time around.

Either way, Fassel and the Cowboys need to figure out who the special teams aces will be.

Gone is longtime safety Jeff Heath, who was one of the Cowboys' best special teams players in recent years. Heath led the team in special teams tackles in 2013 and 2015. Another two-time team leader in special teams tackles is gone as well. Byron Jones became the highest-paid cornerback in NFL history over the offseason, but he also led the Cowboys in special teams tackles in 2016 and 2017.

So will be this year's studs? The Cowboys signed free agent cornerback Maurice Canady with the intention he will help bolster that unit. They've also re-signed cornerback C.J. Goodwin, who led the Cowboys in tackles last season as well. And then there's rookie Reggie Robinson, a fourth-round pick from Tulsa. He is a proven special teams standout with multiple blocked field goals and punts in his collegiate career.

The Cowboys also re-signed a few veteran linebackers in Joe Thomas and Justin March. Plus, Luke Gifford is expected to have a bigger role on special teams.

So this team has plenty of candidates for core special teams aces – now they just have to figure out which guys rise to the top when the opportunity presents itself.

Ready to Compete

How Much Will Kai Forbath Push Zuerlein?

Ready to Compete:

When the Cowboys re-signed Kai Forbath early in the month of March, it was expected the team might still be looking at options. However, Forbath had done enough in his quick time in Dallas – making all 10 of field goal attempts and 10 extra points as well – to get the shot to compete.

And then, in a surprising move, the Cowboys signed Greg Zuerlein, a former Pro Bowler with the Rams who has experience with special teams coach John Fassel.

Considering the difference in contracts – Zuerlein getting three years for $7.5 million while Forbath received a one-year, $1.18 million deal – it would seem like the Cowboys have made up their mind.

Plus, look at the guaranteed money in the deals. Zuerlein will automatically earn $2.25 million while Forbath has just $137,000 in guarantees.

But before you call this a slam dunk – remember one important thing about kickers: they better make the kicks.

It sounds simple enough, but it's not always so easy. Even the ones that have been to the Pro Bowls, even some of the best of all-time, they all struggle at some point. From 2016-18, Zuerlein missed a total of nine field goals in three seasons. Last year alone, he missed nine.

So without a doubt, this will be a competition at the kicking position. And even, if the Cowboys decide to move on from Forbath before training camp, which seems unlikely, but don't forget that kickers are always competing with the rest of the kicking world.

Don't Forget About ...

Another Way CeeDee Lamb Will Contribute

Don't Forget About …

For all the playmaking ability CeeDee Lamb possess – most of it will likely benefit the offense. But let's not forget what Lamb can do as a punt returner, something the Cowboys haven't had much of in recent years, especially in 2019. The Cowboys were one of two NFL teams (Washington) not to have a single punt return over 15 yards.

Lamb will bring some excitement to the position and if anything, gives the Cowboys a real threat back there and someone opposing teams should think twice about when punting the ball deep.

Now, while Lamb might have some growing pains at wide receiver, that shouldn't be a problem for rookies looking to make a splash in the return game.

In the last decade, 27 rookies have scored on a punt return touchdown, including Dez Bryant back in 2010, when he scored twice during his rookie year. Oddly enough, four others on that list have played for the Cowboys – Bryan McCann, Tavon Austin, Randall Cobb and Ryan Switzer, who is the last player to return a punt for a touchdown for the Cowboys (2017).

In college, Lamb had his share of big returns, including three over 40 yards. He finished his career with an 8.8 yard average. But he has shown the ability to make plays in the open field, which played a part in his 19.0 yards per catch average throughout his three years at OU.

Lamb needs the ball in his hands and some open field, and he should be able to do the rest.

If he's going to share the football with other talented weapons on offense, at least he'll get the chance to make an impact on special teams.

What We Know

Pinning Four 2019 Losses on Kicking Game

What We Know

When a new coordinator takes over a unit, more often than not, a change was needed. If not, there probably wouldn't have been a new coach in the first place. And there is no exception to that rule in terms of the Cowboys' special teams in 2019.

The unit wasn't just inconsistent, but downright costly to the Cowboys' success on too many occasions, especially for a team that finished 8-8 and finished one game out of making the playoffs.

Plain and simple, special teams cost the Cowboys a chance to win in at least four games and perhaps more.

Against the Packers in Week 5, the Cowboys trailed by 10 in the final two minutes but kicker Brett Maher missed a 34-yard field goal to prevent any chance for an onside kick and getting the game to a one-score possession.

Against the Jets the next week, Maher did make a 62-yard field goal, but missed one from 40 in an eventual two-point loss.

Against the Giants in New York, the Cowboys gave up 181 kickoff return yards. Against Minnesota the next week, mass confusion occurred on the sideline at the end of the game. Tavon Austin signaled for a fair catch despite having plenty of room to return a punt and perhaps give the Cowboys a chance to win the game.

And there was New England, where the Cowboys had a punt blocked that led to the Patriots only touchdown. Dallas also couldn't figure out the wind and rain as the weather elements caused all sorts of problems handling kickoffs.

Of those five games, the Cowboys lost four of them. One of those plays might have changed the outcome and that might've been the difference in making the playoffs or sitting home, as the Cowboys did once again.

What's New?

Can “Chemistry & Pride” Rebuild Special Teams?

What's New?

He didn't say it just once – but probably closer to three or four times when he met with the media back in January. New special teams coach John Fassel knows there will be plenty of changes to his unit this year, and he's not concerned about what happened, or didn't happen, with the special teams in 2019.

So forgive him if he says "blank slate" a few times as he tries to turn things around for the special teams in 2020.

Fassel is a veteran coach who has helped put Sebastian Janikowski and Shane Lechler in the Pro Bowl for Oakland and then Greg Zuerlein, who has now joined him in Dallas and will compete for the place-kicking duties.

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