Cowboys punter Mat McBriar didn't just have a good season last year. Not even just great. No, with a 48.2-yard punting average, the highest by any NFL punter since 1963, McBriar was nothing short of phenomenal, producing one of the best statistical seasons in league history. McBriar was rewarded with his first trip to the Pro Bowl, returning to Hawaii where he started his football career as a walk-on at the University of Hawaii.
The Cowboys are going to miss linebacker Ryan Fowler, who signed a restricted free-agency deal with the Tennessee Titans this off-season they chose not to match. Fowler wasn't expected to compete for a starting job at linebacker, but he turned into a stellar special team player. Fowler led the Cowboys with 24 special teams tackles last season, more than any Cowboys player had totaled since Charlie Williams had 26 in 1997.
No matter who was returning kickoffs last season, the Cowboys were usually good for about 26 yards. Despite the duties being split by Tyson Thompson, who suffered a broken leg in the seventh game of the season, and rookie Miles Austin, the Cowboys had a pair of effective return weapons. Surprisingly enough, both players finished the season with a 26.0-yard average. Austin, who had nine more attempts and 207 more yards, became the first player in Cowboys history to return a kickoff for a touchdown in a playoff game. This season, it appears the Cowboys will line up both players together on kick-off returns.
Don't Be Surprised If: The Cowboys just can't keep Terence Newman away from punt-return duties. Sure, they're going to try Stanback, and can always rely on Patrick Crayton or possibly Jamaica Rector, if he makes the team. And while the injury risk is always a concern when putting your top cornerback deep on punt returns, the reward in this particular case makes this a rather enticing alternative. Newman proved that in last year's regular-season finale, returning a punt 56 yards against Detroit for his first career touchdown. Newman led the Cowboys last season with a 10.1-yard punt return average.
Martin Gramatica (K) - Filled in nicely after the Cowboys cut Vanderjagt. If healthy, should be able to retain his job.
L.P. Ladouceur (LS) - Doesn't draw much attention. And at his position, that's always a good thing.
Tyson Thompson (KR) - Hard not to use his speed on kickoffs. But still hasn't had a return longer than 49 yards.
Miles Austin (KR) - Capped off a solid second half of the season with a big kickoff return for a TD in playoffs.
Patrick Crayton (PR) - Not the quickest or even flashiest, but can count on his sure hands to catch the ball.
Brad Johnson (H) - Being the starting quarterback has many perks. And for Romo, getting relieved of his holding duties is one of them.
Isaiah Stanback (KR/PR) - With all of his athleticism, the Cowboys will find a spot for him somewhere.
Terence Newman (PR) - Won't be considered the first option, but his speed and quickness keep him in the hunt.
Jamaica Rector (PR) - With a crowded group of receivers, punt return might be his only chance to make the team.