It’s no secret that special teams duties are a big part of roster-building decisions for all NFL teams. One area where the Cowboys have not had consistency lately is with kickoff and punt returners. Who are the early favorites to handle those jobs in 2021?
It’s been a while since Dallas had a true fixture in the KR/PR roles. Dwayne Harris was the last guy to do them at a high level; a true special teams ace from 2011-2014 for the Cowboys. Nobody has touched his proficiency in the return game since.
Since Harris we’ve seen a variety of efforts. Some seasons there’s been a designated return specialist like Lucky Whitehead or Ryan Switzer, while other years the Cowboys have taken a committee approach. Various players like Cole Beasley, Lance Dunbar, Tavon Austin, Jourdan Lewis, and others have moved in and out of these duties depending on health and performance.
In Beasley’s case, Dallas was essentially waving a white flag on any hope of a punt return and just trusting him to make the fair catches. It was a bit discouraging.
Last season we saw more of the committee approach. RB Tony Pollard handled the majority of kickoffs and WR CeeDee Lamb took most of the punts, but RB Rico Dowdle and WR Cedrick Wilson got some opportunities as well. All of these players are back with the Cowboys in 2021.
Nobody stood out as being exceptionally gifted with return ability. The one touchdown was a fluke; Lamb was in on the “hands team” for an onside kick against the 49ers and had an easy lane open up for him. But nobody is coming into this season as a clear favorite.
The good news for the Cowboys is that these are all players who should make the 2021 roster for other needs as well. Pollard and Lamb are obvious locks at their positions and Wilson is a heavy favorite to be the fourth receiver. Dowdle will likely be RB3 but has to be concerned about Dallas only keeping two running backs, which they’ve done in the past with Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott.
One of the best ways for an undrafted rookie to fight his way onto the roster is through special teams but none of the current crop were prolific return men in college. RB Brenden Knox out of Marshall has some experience on kickoffs but may not have the speed to challenge Dowdle or Pollard.
Lamb could still be used on punt returns so long as Michael Gallup is around. It’s a lot harder for teams to risk a starter on special teams unless they’re truly special in the job, but having Gallup allows the Cowboys to gamble a little more with CeeDee’s athletic gifts.
As we saw with a young Dez Bryant back in 2010-2012, special teams work for CeeDee will likely go down as his offensive role and importance increases. Dez didn’t record a single kick or punt return from 2013 onward; just his fourth season in the NFL.
This will only be John Fassel’s second year as Special Teams Coordinator, meaning he’s still in the process of evaluating talent and fully installing his vision. And now that there will be less restrictions due to COVID-19, Fassel may be able to bring about greater change in some areas with more practice opportunities.
Will Tony Pollard and CeeDee Lamb still handle most returns in 2021 or will someone new emerge? And whoever it is, will they provide a consistent threat as a returner or remain more of an afterthought?
It’s a part of the game where the Dallas Cowboys could definitely use some improvement this season.