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Catching Up With the Cowboys Special Teams

The additions of special teams coach Joe DeCamillis and rookie kickoff specialist David Buehler brought some much needed control to Dallas' coverage units. Also essential to the improvement in this area was the healthy return of punter Mat McBriar, whose 38 punts inside the 20-yard line were the sixth-highest total in NFL history.

With all the young players trying to make the 2010 squad, there is sure to be some competition at spots on both the kickoff and punt teams.

But when receiving the ball, who will be catching kickoffs and punts for the Cowboys? That job looks to be up in the air right now. OTA sensation Dez Bryant may be the front runner for both positions, perhaps a lock for at least punt returner with Patrick Crayton on hiatus.

Though being a first-round pick, and as talented as he has shown to be at wide receiver, the Cowboys are planning on getting Bryant involved in the offensive playbook as quickly as possible. Cutting into his special teams plays will depend upon how much he contributes to the offense.

DC.com writer Nick Eatman compares how the offensive responsibilities of Miles Austin and Felix Jones show that Bryant's time as a return man could be limited. The rookie could, of course, man both return spots. But if Austin, Felix, and Crayton will not be available as returners, the Cowboys are looking for other options.

So far, no one has emerged. Then again, how can anyone emerge in June?

Some of the guys who have been practicing back there include Kevin Ogletree, rookie cornerback Bryan McCann and wide receiver Titus Ryan. I would assume Orlando Scandrick will at least get some reps when he comes back from injury and Terence Newman will always be a candidate for punt returns. And who knows, maybe the Cowboys realize that Patrick Crayton will have some more value as a punt returner if Bryant isn’t the answer.

Let's assume that between Bryant, Newman, and Crayton (if still around) that the punt returner's job is set for Week 1. At kick return, while Felix has still been practicing back there, we could assume that Jason Garrett would rather not have him returning 30 kickoffs in 2010 like he did last season. Besides, he averaged an unimpressive 22.6 yards per return.

It would be intriguing to see Bryant return some kickoffs; although, another option back there is Ogletree, who looked good returning kicks during the 2009 preseason. He was brought along slowly during the regular season and ended up only returning eight for a 20.8 yard average. This offseason, Ogletree has been working hard with both WR coach Ray Sherman and ST coach DeCamillis.

"I was here the whole offseason working with (special teams coordinator) Joe (DeCamillis) and I would do some extra stuff to make sure I focused on conditioning. I know if I am in top shape that will help out a bunch," he said. "I am trying to get better at as many aspects of my game as I can and not just focus on one thing I am good or bad at."

Ogletree's career is beginning similar to that of Miles Austin's. Undrafted WR. Worked hard and showed enough potential to make the final 53. Has seen time on coverage units and the kick return game. It's no wonder he and Austin are pals.

"He's been through every single thing I'm going through now," said Ogletree, who frequently hangs out with Austin away from the practice facility.

"He tells me how things are going to be and actually shows me the way by doing it. He's been exactly where I was, trying to get some playing time, trying to get the coaches' trust. He shows me the work ethic, how hard you've got to work to get there." Austin said that, in the end, Ogletree eventually will have to help himself. "

What I can do and try to do is show him the right way to go about things," Austin said. "Hopefully, he can put it all together. There's always work to be done, but if he keeps working and keeps improving, the sky's the limit."

Hat tip to what_the_crap for the FanShot.

During training camp, a host of backup WRs like Titus Ryan (kick return vs. Montreal ) and Manny Johnson, as well as backup DBs, such as Bryan McCann and Akwasi Owusu-Ansah (punt return vs. Ediboro) will get their shots at showing what they can do in the return department.

To expect to contribute this season, all of these guys will also have to show they can cover and/or block on the other special teams units. With Buehler focusing on kicking, his other ST duties will be open for somebody. With a host of 2009 rookies coming back from injury, along with a said-to-be-improving Jesse Holley, competition at these spots should be tight. OCC's special teams article last month showed us some players who were productive on Dallas' 2009 coverage units, as well as some who were not so productive.

Dallas had three special teamers who stood out last season in Alan Ball, Victor Butler and Sam Hurd. Ball is likely to take over the safety spot vacated by Ken Hamlin, Victor Butler's place on the 53-man roster is virtually guaranteed based on his ST play and promising glimpses on defense. If Sam Hurd decides to stay, he would likely win out versus another equal receiver based on his ST play. Steve Octavian and Curtis Johnson also rated above average, both with a 1.5 overall score, but they were 'only' graded in 3 and 2 games respectively.

At the bottom of the table, Bobby Carpenter did record 7 ST tackles but PFF did not judge these particularly distinguishing. Pat Watkins is credited with 6 missed tackles, more than any other of the 213 special teamers.

Todd Archer thinks Watkins could still be the team's special teams ace that he has been in the past.

As far as Watkins, I think he'll be in the mix because of his special-teams play. He doesn't appear to be in the fight for the FS job, but he's a terrific gunner and probably the best special-teams guy. But there comes a question of price with him too. He's scheduled to make more than $1 million. So you have to look at some rookies like Barry Church as a possible replacement.

Similar to offense and defense, it's good to mix experienced players with young ones on special teams. That's why you see guys like Watkins, Gerald Sensabaugh, Ball, and Sam Hurd on most of the units.

Regarding Hurd, nevermind where he fits in at WR. He now must be considered not only one of the "vets" on special teams, but also as one of the team's most reliable players there. He plays his role well, and the coaches seem to love him for that.

I talk to other players about Sam's attitude,'' Phillips said. ``If you can keep that same attitude that he has, you're going to do well. He's trying to be great on every play, and he feels he can do that.''

Hurd's primary value to the Cowboys is on special teams. He had a team-high 19 tackles out of the 85 kicks and punts returned against the Cowboys last season.

On the kick/punt return and field goal/extra point units, tight ends and fullbacks always come in handy. If a guy like Scott Sicko is going to make the team, then he would be somewhere on these units--perhaps between some combination of John Phillips, Martellus Bennett, and Deon Anderson. Sicko, though, has got other things he has to learn first if he's going to make the final 53.

"If the coaches ask me to do it, I'm going to be happy to do it," Sicko said. "I'm going to be more than willing to do whatever they ask, just to try to increase my chances of how much I can help the team."

Sicko said although there is a difference between blocking as a tight end and fullback, he has experience coming out of the backfield as the lead blocker from playing at UNH.

"The big difference is, you have to make more reads at the fullback position," Sicko said. "You have to read the lineman blocks to work up to the second level to make your block."

The Cowboys' approach to the placekicking situation has simply been to develop David Buehler. We know about his touchbacks, his leg strength, and that Dallas brought in Chris Boniol to coach him up.

Last season's kicking woes between Nick Folk and Shaun Suisham could be blamed on anything from lack of confidence, nerves, injury, or just plain bad accuracy. Of those, Buehler seems to only need to work on his accuracy. With Boniol, he's learning proper technique.

"As a rookie, I wasn't really prepared to step in and fill the void," he said. "Now I have an offseason to get my head right and know what my job is."

Part of knocking the rust off was making some changes in his technique. Boniol has taught Buehler to eliminate a jab step at the start of his approach. He's also standing more upright and no longer watching the flight of the ball from the snapper to the holder. Now he watches the spot where the holder is going to be placing it. With one less step and minimal movement of his eyes and head, fewer things can go wrong.

Some kicking results from a session during last Wednesday's OTA. Four tries for Buehler and two for Hughes.

Kicker David Buehler went 3 of 4 on field goals, hitting from 33, 39 and 40 yards. He was wide right from 45 yards. Connor Hughes had a 50-yarder but missed from 43.

Can't end a special teams story without mentioning that guy who will be getting the ball back to Buehler and McBriar. L.P. Ladouceur! If you don't hear his name called during a game, that's usually a good thing for a long snapper. In all likelihood, Ladoucer will again be manning the deep snapper spot for the Cowboys. Without Cory Procter as a backup option anymore, Dallas has a few new options for L.P.'s backup, which include Sicko.

Even though it's kind of an annual question whether the Cowboys will try to save a roster spot by signing a long snapper who can play a position, they really seem to value the perfection Ladouceur has flirted with in his role. The only player on the roster who might have bumped Ladouceur was undrafted rookie Scott Sicko, who has some experience, but in rookie minicamp it quickly became apparent he wasn't on Ladouceur's level. Ladouceur will be the Cowboys' deep snapper in 2010 and for the foreseeable future.

Other options at backing up Ladouceur are TE John Phillips and DE Marcus Dixon.

A defensive end by trade, Dixon, who spent the last two seasons on the practice squad, does some work on the kickoff coverage team and on Tuesday was spotted doing some long snapping work. He was the backup snapper at Hampton but never got in a game. Dixon and John Phillips have been taking some snaps behind L.P. Ladouceur during the organized team activities.

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