As we look ahead to a new season it's always interesting to project players who could take a major step in their careers. Sometimes this is an obvious expectation, such as with Byron Jones becoming a full-time starter in his second season. Others, though, are not as obvious and may take a very specific set of circumstances to develop.
With roughly two months to go before the start of training camp I thought I'd spend some time profiling Cowboys who could become major factors in the coming season. I'm going to start today with an emerging offensive weapon and potential special teams ace:
An undrafted free agent in 2015, Whitehead eventually emerged as the Cowboys' primary return man on both kickoffs and punts. He flashed potential in the preseason but also had some ball security issues, which prompted Dallas to stick with Lance Dunbar on kickoffs and Cole Beasley on punts for the early part of the year.
After Dunbar got injured in Week 4 and Beasley botched a late-game punt return against the Giants in Week 7, Whitehead became the primary return man on both units. His kickoff return average of 28.3 yards would have put him in the top five in the NFL, had he fielded enough kicks to qualify. He was less productive on punts with just a 5.8 average, though he did show that play-making spark at times.
Whitehead also began to find a niche role in the offense late last year. He started to get some of the plays that Dunbar was seeing early on, finishing the season with 10 carries for 107 yards and six catches for 16 yards. It was clear that the coaches were looking for more ways to get him the ball and take advantage of his explosiveness.
Dallas did not sign or draft any clear challenger to Whitehead's return duties, so we can assume it's his job to lose. The biggest issue for Whitehead will be whether or not the Cowboys want to use a roster spot on a return specialist if they don't have a role for him on offense.
Dunbar was re-signed to a one-year deal and will likely be given every opportunity to reclaim his blossoming offensive role. Dallas will have several other running backs to service with Ezekiel Elliott joining veterans Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris. They also hope to have a healthy Dez Bryant commanding more catches. There will only be so much work to go around.
Reports are that Whitehead has been working hard to improve his physique, perhaps giving even more offensive potential. Ultimately, though, it will be his continued development and consistency on special teams that decides his fate. Dallas will find a way to keep him if they think he can be a game-changer on returns, and Lucky has certainly shown the potential to be just that.
Kick and punt returns are one the great x-factors in football. They can completely change the scoring potential of a drive or even result in a touch on a single play. There are usually only a few dynamic return men in the NFL at a given time and Lucky Whitehead has the potential to be one of them.
If he delivers, Lucky will be another big weapon as the Cowboys fight to get back to the playoffs.