Before you get any ideas - No, 2013 was not a special teams' draft. That said, the 2013 draft, like any good draft class, will be expected to strengthen the Cowboys' special teams.
First, however, we should take a moment to appreciate what really goes into good special teams play. I'm not talking about kickers and punters and long snappers, or even David Buehler. I'm talking about the guys you don't even get to see line up, who play 20 snaps per game under fairly exciting, important circumstances (changes of possession are, after all, important).
The special teams are made up of both sides of every kicking situation in football. Punts, field goals, kickoffs, safety punts, and even fair catch kicks (they exist, I promise). There are variations in these formations, as well (think on-side kicks, punt block/return, field goal block/return, etc.). In short, there are a ton of different game situations in which these normally bottom-roster players need to come in and make plays.
Within these teams, there are a number of roles that need to be filled. There are gunners, who are typically lightning-fast and sure tacklers. There are generic coverage players, who have to fill lanes against returners and essentially defend the run in space. There are blockers, who are the foils to the coverage players, executing blocks in space. There are the return men who get most of the glory on teams, and then there are the utility men. The utility men (and this isn't a standard term or anything, just a name I find fitting) are the ones who have to block for the punter and then run downfield and cover the kick, or, conversely, rush the punter before turning to block for the returner.
With the exception of the gunners and returners, the jobs are all typically filled by the same players. A small subset of the roster, maybe 15-20 players, is asked to fill the roles of blockers, coverage men, and utility men. Where are we supposed to find such a collection of athletes, equally adept as downfield blockers and open-field tacklers, that also can contribute on offense and defense?
As it turns out, the best players for those key positions are typically your 6' - 6'6, 230- to 250-pound generic athletes. Who plays at that size? Well, typically, linebackers and tight ends. Obviously, linebackers are more suited to the tackling, and tight ends to the blocking, but these two position groups typically possess the size, skills and athletic ability to excel in these roles. Once we run out of them, we turn to fullbacks, running backs and safeties.
With the overview behind us, I'd like to point out a few ways in which I believe the Cowboys have improved the quality of their special teams play this offseason.
The 4-3 Defense:
When I first envisioned this post, I was wondering if the 4-3 or 3-4 really influenced the talent available for special teams. I always knew that linebackers were precious commodities on special teams, and so my first thought was that, with more linebackers, the 3-4 defense would be superior to the 4-3 in this regard.
After careful consideration, I've reversed field on that. Think about the front seven of each unit, and imagine that each team carries one backup for each position that will be available for special teams work. The 3-4 gives you two ideal linebackers from the ILB positions, and two slightly larger candidates from the OLB spots, for a total of four solid contributors. They also pitch in with a trio of 300-pound men who are of little use running down the field on kickoff coverage. For our purposes, those three are essentially non-contributors (we're focusing on punts and kickoffs, which are the most dynamic units).
The 4-3, on the other hand, starts off by providing three high-quality, rangy linebackers. They pitch in a pair of fairly useless 300-pounders, as well. The other two, however, the defensive ends, are an intriguing proposition. It looks like the Cowboys may be putting Kyle Wilber and Alex Albright at these backup positions, and, in my opinion, they belong far more to the group of exceptional candidates than to the group of useless large bodies. Their size and athleticism are ideal for the job. That pushes the 4-3 to five viable contributors, while the 3-4 only has its four linebackers.
The philosophy change on defense may have provided at least one additional valuable contributor to the special teams equation.
The stockpiling of tight ends:
Tight ends are useful primarily as blockers in the return game. Their size and athleticism can help them become valuable all-around special teams players, however, and I believe the Cowboys will be expecting that from their tight ends.
The biggest concern with our tight ends actually lies with their ability to block. Developing as core special-teamers will enhance this ability through additional repetitions in practice as well as live game action. Under the new CBA, this is increasingly important, as practice time is very limited.
Wes Phillips, a former offensive line assistant, working with the Tight Ends should also prove beneficial to their development in this regard.
The wealth of returners:
As has been observed, the Cowboys' draft selections and UDFA pickups added some serious competition to the returner positions.
Competition is always a good thing (unless it's for the starting quarterback role in New York...) and should generate a better return game for the Cowboys in 2013 - even if that means an improved Dwayne Harris. Harris has plenty of moves, but his breakaway speed has been seen as an area of weakness. Additionally, the offense may have plans to use him more often.
Personally, I'd be happy to see someone with 4.3 or 4.4 speed win the job, but I'm also fond of Dwayne Harris channeling his inner Dez Bryant as he shakes and runs over tacklers. The point is that the team has made a point to acquire players who had potential as returners, and did so without compromising their pursuit of potential future starters.
The Cowboys' 2013 offseason has provided boosts to the core special teams personnel, while at the same time improving the roster's depth at most positions. While I won't say special teams was the overall intention of these moves, it seems likely that improved special teams play will be a fortunate side effect.