Bill Parcells had the right idea when he selected LSU return man Skyler Green in the fourth round of the 2006 NFL draft. At the time Green was widely regarded as the #2 kickoff/punt return prospect in the draft, behind only Miami's Devin Hester. Unfortunately for Cowboy fans the Bears got the right guy, and we got the wrong one. Hopefully time has dulled the sting of missing on Green, because the Cowboys need to take another swing at finding a punt returner.
Of course, the Cowboys punt return struggles go a lot deeper than the return man himself. If your punt return squad can't spring Pacman Jones loose every once in a while, your problems are deep. Last year, special teams coordinator Bruce Read's unit finished 30th in the NFL in punt return average. Read is out, and replacing him is Joe DeCamillis, whose 2008 Jacksonville unit ranked 15th in the league. DeCamillis may be able to help the Cowboys return game as far as scheme and fundamentals, but it sure wouldn't hurt to have a punt returner who can make things happen on his own.
The Cowboys have a few in-house options, but none are really feasible. Patrick Crayton is sure handed, but unwatchable with the football in his hands. Terence Newman is the best punt returner on the roster, but given his recent injury history it is unlikely that the staff will subject him to any unnecessary danger. Isaiah Stanback has the skill set to be a dynamic punt returner. Stanback has the speed, vision, and stop-and-start capabilities to do the job, but has zero experience as a punt returner.
Apparently my attempts to telekinetically plant the name Chris Carr in Jerry Jones' head were unsuccessful. Carr's signing with Baltimore means that there are really no viable punt returners left in free agency.
Before we turn our attention to this year's crop of draft-eligible return men, let's be real with ourselves. Percy Harvin and Jeremy Maclin will be gone before the guys in the Cowboys war room have even finished playing rock-paper-scissors to decide who gets the comfy chair. Let's try to think about the guys we actually have a shot at.
Anthony Henry's departure leaves the Cowboys in need of depth at cornerback. It would be ideal to find a punt returner who is also capable on the corner. There are plenty of guys in this draft who fit the bill.
- I will go on record now as saying that Wake Forest's Alphonso Smith is the best corner in this draft. You can't argue with Smith's film, but his lack of prototypical size (5'8"/190) will cause him to slide. If he were somehow available when the Cowboys select in the third round (69th overall) he would be an absolute steal.
- One guy who's name is beginning to gather a little steam is Central Florida's Joe Burnett. As a senior Burnett averaged 14.5 yards per return as a senior, and was also the first team All-Conference USA punt returner as a junior. Burnett also averaged 28.6 yards on kickoffs.
The Cowboys have no room on the roster for a punt returning scat-back. The only possibility would be to draft a developmental type wide receiver who can contribute in the return game as he learns the receiver position. This draft class also has a few of those type of guys.
- Arizona's Mike Thomas was among the nations top punt returners (14.0 average) in 2008. While his speed (4.40) and hands make him an intriguing prospect, scouts don't like his size (5'8"/195). He will not be an early selection.
- North Carolina's Brandon Tate was averaging an obscene 22.6 yards per return before being sidelined by a mid-season knee injury. Tate's inability to work out for scouts will certainly hurt his draft status. He should be available in the middle rounds.
Dynamic punt returners are more than an unnecessary luxury. They are game-changers. Nothing ignites a stagnant offense, or busts you out of a 3-3 grunt fest like a big return. The Cowboys have got to find a guy who can flip the field in the punt return game. When Deion Sanders was here, special teams coordinators around the league just rented apartments, because they didn't have the job security to invest in a home. While there are no Deions in this year's draft class, there are a few guys who can provide a spark, and potentially steal some points in the return game. The Cowboys would be well-served to upgrade the punt return position in this year's draft.