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3 areas of improvement for the Cowboys special teams heading into 2022

How can the Cowboys special teams get even better?

Las Vegas Raiders v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

It feels like forever ago that the Cowboys’ special teams were an embarrassment. Keith O’Quinn took over that side of the ball for Rich Bisaccia, who departed for the Raiders. Bisaccia had delivered three straight seasons of Dallas ranking in the top ten in special teams DVOA, but O’Quinn immediately tanked that; the Cowboys finished 23rd and 30th in his two years as coordinator.

That’s one reason why John Fassel was the first call Mike McCarthy made when taking the job. Fassel’s unit improved to seventh in special teams DVOA in his first year and they climbed to sixth this year. The Cowboys notably led the league in blocked punts, a reflection of Fassel’s aggressive tendencies. But the Cowboys could get even better in this area by doing three things.

Real competition for Greg Zuerlein

I’ve gone to bat for Greg Zuerlein a few times now, and still stand by the assertion that Zuerlein is extremely reliable on kicks that matter most. Case in point: Zuerlein didn’t miss a single kick against the 49ers in the playoffs. In a win-or-go-home setting, Zuerlein was one of the few Cowboys who didn’t do something to cost them the game.

Still, if the Cowboys can get a kicker who makes his kicks more often, that would certainly be nice. Everyone knows how much Justin Tucker does for the Ravens, and rookie kicker Evan McPherson has been a huge part of the Bengals’ improbable run to the Super Bowl. But kickers like those don’t grow on trees, so expecting Dallas to simply find the next one is an unrealistic proposition.

That doesn’t mean they can’t at least bring in some real competition for Zuerlein. Dallas already took a step towards this earlier in the week by signing former SMU kicker Chris Naggar to a futures deal.

Naggar just finished his rookie year, getting cut by the Jets during the preseason before spending most of the season on the Browns practice squad. He was elevated to the active roster twice in Cleveland, hitting one of two extra point attempts and connecting on his lone field goal attempt, a 37-yard kick.

Perhaps Naggar can come out of nowhere like McPherson did this year, but signing a young player to a futures deal isn’t really giving Zuerlein competition. Zuerlein likely feels less threatened by Naggar than he did Kai Forbath. The Cowboys owe it to themselves to bring in a real contender for Zuerlein instead of going through the motions.

Make a decision on Bryan Anger

Bryan Anger was a nice surprise this year. Dallas signed him in free agency, and Anger beat out Hunter Niswander during training camp. Anger went on to be named to the Pro Bowl and Second-Team All Pro.

However, Anger’s contract is up already. It shouldn’t take too much to bring him back, but there are things to consider. First, Anger will turn 34 during the 2022 season, and Fassel may want a younger player to bring along.

The other, more pressing issue is that Fassel is a very aggressive special teams coordinator and much of his success in previous stops with the Raiders and Rams came from his ability to successfully run fake punts. Fassel rarely did that in 2020 with Chris Jones and Niswander, and that remained so in 2021. Anger did have a completed pass to pick up a first down in the Wild Card game, but that was a rare occurrence for this special teams group.

The simple reason for this is that Anger isn’t great at fake punts. He had attempted just two passes in his nine seasons before coming to Dallas, and had just two rushing attempts as well. If the Cowboys want to take this unit to the next level and fully reach into Fassel’s bag of tricks, they’ll need a punter who can pose a threat on those fake punts. That may mean moving on from Anger, even after such a good season.

Game-changing return specialist

The Cowboys had three primary return specialists in 2021: CeeDee Lamb, Cedrick Wilson, and Tony Pollard. Neither Lamb nor Wilson were particularly special when returning punts, and both were needed much more on offense anyway. Pollard had some big moments, but kick returners in general have less opportunities to do something special with how often kickoffs go for touchbacks now.

Imagine how much value the Cowboys could add if they had a return specialist that offered a legitimate chance of taking it all the way back every time? They might be able to find such a player in the draft, but there are some established names with expiring contracts too. Cordarrelle Patterson is quickly approaching Devin Hester levels of production as a returner, and Jakeem Grant hasn’t been far behind him in the last three years.

Deonte Harris has been a menace to opposing teams in each of his three years in the NFL, and the Saints may not be able to keep him around as they face yet another offseason of tricky cap management maneuvers. Even veteran Andre Roberts has been consistent throughout his career, and offers experience as both a kick and punt returner.

To put it simply, the Cowboys will have options if they want to give Fassel a legitimate home run threat at returner. Not only would it pose a significant value add in the return game, but it would prevent key offensive skill players like Lamb, Pollard, and Wilson (if they re-sign him) from being exposed to the kind of contact that returners see.