After the 2011 season, Jason and Jerry have wasted little time to begin making changes to improve next year’s version of the Cowboys. If you got the feeling last year that Dallas wasn’t that great on kickoff and punt returns, then you would be right.
Last year they ranked 20th in kickoff returns averaging 23.3 yards per return. In punt returns the news gets worse, as they were 27th in the NFL averaging an unexciting 7.1 yards per return. No kicks were returned for TDs and very few returns were long enough to really make a difference in field position.
Clearly this is another area where Dallas needs to get better. Kick returns can change the momentum of a game quickly and give a team a spark when they really need it. Several players returned kicks for the Cowboys last season but none of them really ever stepped up and took ownership of the role. Some of them just didn’t look like they were into it at all. Who is the answer in 2012?
Let’s look at the options for Kickoff returns:
Dez Bryant: He averaged only 18.3 yards per return and he appears to be a much better punt returner. In my view, it isn’t worth risking injury to one of your best WRs and offensive weapons just to get out to about the 20 yard line. Never understood why they even risked it last year given Dez’s history of injuries.
Felix Jones: An excellent kickoff returner as he averaged 26.6 yards per return. Felix has the ability to take one the distance and has before in the past. However he wasn’t very healthy last year and you just can’t have him back there when hurt. He is very important to the running game.
Kevin Ogletree: Only averaged 19 yards a return. Not his thing it appears.
DeMarco Murray: He was allowed to return two kickoffs and averaged only 18 yards per return. It is very foolish to risk an injury to your best RB on kickoffs. Do not put him back there any more Jason. It is going to get you in trouble. Yes, even in more trouble than icing your own kicker. Murray didn’t appear to be into it so let’s move on from this idea.
Dwayne Harris: A rookie rarely used early in the season but allowed to play more late in the season and was impressive as a kick returner. He averaged 29 yards on kick returns and shows the ability to be an exciting returner. I like his big play mentality and since he provides depth at WR and doesn’t start, it gives him a role on the team. Harris returned 3 kickoffs for TDs in college. Best option for Dallas.
Conclusion: Go with Harris and if Murray is healthy at RB then also include Felix to return kickoffs some to add a spark.
Dez Bryant: Was effective as a punt returner his rookie season but last year he only averaged 6.9 yards per return. Once again, I just don’t think it is worth the risk for injury when he is so valuable to the offense as a WR.
Kevin Ogletree: Only returned 2 punts but provided one of the best ones of the year with a 25 yard return. Shows some ability here but it is questionable if Dallas will sign him next year. If he is signed, I would like to see more punt returns.
Dwayne Harris: Only averaged 5 yards per punt return. Shows promise however and was an effective punt returner in college as he averaged more than 11 yards per return his senior year. He could grow into this role for sure. More attempts will lead to improvement I believe.
Conclusion: Dez is best punt returner but not worth the risk. Ogletree showed some ability but may not be back next year. Harris is the best option in my view to take this role and run with it. If Ogletree is back, then give him a good look as a punt returner.
Another option: Bring in an undrafted free agent who is a good returner. WR Devon Wylie of Fresno State was second in the country in punt returns with 11 yards per return. He is expected to be a late draft pick but if he goes undrafted, he could be a good player to bring in and take a look at as a returner.
The Cowboys need to get more exciting in their kick returns. It could be a real difference maker for them next year.