The Dallas Cowboys punt return production in 2011 left an awful lot to be desired. They finished ranked 27th in punt returns in the NFL last year so to say there is room for improvement, is a huge under statement.
A timely big punt return can turn the momentum of a game around and be a real difference maker. For Dallas to win a game here or there next season that maybe they shouldn’t, it will take more productivity from punt returns. Back in January when the season ended, I blogged about the Cowboys options at punt return and came to the conclusion that Dwayne Harris would likely be their best option next year based on the roster at the time. HERE Since then, we have had an NFL draft adding new contenders in the mix for punt returner, so let’s have an updated look.
I still have the opinion that ultimately the punt returner position is going to be Dwayne Harris’ to lose. Harris received praise for how he looked in OTAs as a wide receiver in his second year. Better grasp of the offense and more explosive looking. Harris has a little NFL experience returning punts but was very effective returning punts in college at ECU. He averaged an impressive 11 yards per return.
Jerry Jones has said that he is for Dez Bryant returning punts. HERE
When one looks over the roster, Dez would be the guy with the most NFL experience doing it and he has definitely proved to be explosive at returning kicks especially during his rookie year. The issue is that Dez will be a starting WR and it happens to be a position with very limited depth at this point so can you risk getting Dez injured? Is it really worth the risk? Last year in the opening game against the Jets, Dez was injured returning a punt which negatively impacted his play at WR for the rest of the game. It’s just a bad idea and put it on the long list of bone headed ideas from Jerry.
The Cowboys drafted WR Danny Coale who has experience returning punts at Va. Tech. They also brought in undrafted WR Cole Beasley from SMU who has experience returning punts. Beasley only had 3 punt returns in 2011 which he averaged a modest 6.7 yards per return with no TDs. Coale had 8 returns last year for an average of 6.5 yards and no TDs making him equal with Beasley on paper at least.
This would be an interesting battle to watch in preseason however Danny Coale broke his foot during OTAs so I just don’t see him being a factor at returning punts any time soon. He will do well to get back on the field as a WR during camp and perhaps later in the season he gets a shot at returning a punt.
Morris Claiborne was drafted number 6 by Dallas in the draft and he comes in with special teams experience and ability. He has been mentioned as a punt returner although in college he returned kickoffs and did so quite well. I just don’t see Mo returning punts next season but I think he will be the guy to return kickoffs which actually are a fairly rare occurrence in the NFL because of rules that encourage touchbacks.
During the preseason games I expect to see Dwayne Harris and Cole Beasley mostly returning punts as they audition for that duty. To avoid injury, Dez will not be returning punts in preseason but they know what he can do already. If neither Harris or Beasley emerges as a reliable and capable punt returner, then I think Dallas will roll the dice and look to Dez once again. WR Kevin Ogletree is also a possibility to be considered as he returned two punts last year and actually provided their longest return of the season.
It would be a tremendous help to the Cowboys if Beasley or Harris steps up and takes ownership of punt return duties during the preseason. That way, Jerry doesn’t push Dez out there to get injured once again and force the offense to try to get by without him.