Last year's draft has been characterized by many as a special teams draft. I'm going to hold off on this designation, until I see what Jason Williams, Robert Brewster, Victor Butler and Brandon Williams do from scrimmage this year. The skeptics do hold the debate at the moment, as last year's most productive rookies were David Buehler and John Phillips. Buehler in particular, helped Dallas' kickoff coverage team rise from one of the league's worst to one of the best.
With only six arrows in Dallas' quiver today, and with so much riding on obtaining key long-term depth in next week's draft, can the Cowboys afford to spend more picks on special teammers?
Recent evidence suggests the answer is yes.
The Cowboys have tried with little success to draft returners in the late years of the Parcells regime. Jeff Ireland used an '05 4th rounder on Skyler Green, hoping he would add juice to the Cowboys' punt return attack. Green battled weight problems and was quietly cut after just a year with the team.
Ireland spent another 4th rounder on Isiah Stanback the next year. Stanback was projected to receiver but the team hoped the open field skills he displayed running Washington's pass attack would translate to kickoff returns early in his career. Stanback spent most of his Cowboys career in the training room and he, like Green, no longer plays for the team.
These flameouts put me at odds with cheerleaders for smurfs like Dexter McCluster. He may become a fine NFL player, but given how much waste those two 4th rounders generated, it seems that much riskier to use a 2nd on somebody who does not translate into an every down player. (Right now, I'm seeing McCluster in a lot of mock 2nd rounds.) Devin Hester showed that a 2nd round special team ace can make a difference, but is Hester the rule or the exceptional example of this strategy?
My pessimism aside, I do think Dallas could look for special teammers. That's plural folks. For all the surprise picks, the Cowboys have not hit on a kick returner or on a kicker. One trait of successful organizations I highlighted early in this draft series is stubborness; if they don't fill a need with one player, or even a second, they'll keep drafting that spot until they hit, because the need won't go away until the team gets it right.
I'm wary of seeing a pure returner or slot man in the 2nd, but given how low the Cowboys pick, I can see one in the 4th, or even in the 3rd round in certain circumstances. Two factors play into my thinking:
1. Patrick Crayton isn't getting any younger. He's as gritty as they come, but if you heard Bryan Broaddus' appearance on the D.C. Fanatic Show last night, you heard him put Crayton's 40 time in the 4.72 range.
That lack of a top end has consequences. Think to the first Eagles game. Just before halftime, Tony Romo hit Crayton on a quick seam route. Crayton was clear of the Eagles corners and would have raced 80 or so yards for a touchdown -- had he a top gear. Because he didn't, Crayton was caught from behind by a linebacker 66 yards upfield. The Cowboys had to settle for a field goal.
Crayton was an outstanding punt returner last year. He makes the most of his opportunities by taking each ball up field. You don't see shake from him. No equivocation. No jitter-bugging. He won't remind anybody of Gale Sayers, but he'll almost always get you seven or eight yards because he doesn't mess around.
Imagine, on the other hand, the value of somebody with real shake. Green without the gut. Pacman Jones without the brain rust. Joe DeCamillis fixed most of Dallas' special teams ills last year, but he never got kickoff returns to produce. He'll likely lost Felix Jones from his rotation, now that he's a likely starter. Joe D. had a hand in the special team's picks last year and I'm sure he'll lobby for a returner next week.
So I'm going to agree with the McCluster-lovers, even if I don't agree on their guy. Dallas definitely needs a guy like McCluster and I think they'll start looking in the 4th, maybe even in the late 3rd. Here is where the smaller, non-profile guys will become real options. The Jacoby Fords. The Jordan Shipleys and guys of that ilk.
2. Dallas has spent two 6th rounders on kickers in the past five years, and what do they have to show for it? A kickoff specialist extraordinaire in Buehler, and then what? Who's going to line up that pressure 49 yarder with three seconds left on the clock?
Dallas doesn't know. The team has avoided veteran free agents thus far. They're giving Buehler a shot at being Mr. Everything, but how many games are you willing to risk on this experiment?
I would hardly be surprised to see another 6th or a 7th spent on one of the more cold-blooded kickers in this year's crop. The Cowboys saw the difference good coverage units made last year. DeCamillis exorcised the ghost of Bruce Read.
Now, think how much better the special teams, and the team in general, would be if Joe D. finished the job this year?