When Dez Bryant was drafted by the Cowboys in 2010, Dallas had two veteran receivers, Miles Austin and Roy Williams, who were fixtures on the offense. The addition of Bryant, somewhat of a wild stallion of unrefined athleticism itching to make big plays on the field. As the team’s third receiver, Bryant caught 45 balls for 561 yards and six touchdowns, in 12 games. In an effort to give their first-round pick the opportunity to make more plays, the Cowboys deployed Bryant as their primary punt returner, and a rotational kick-off returner.
The results were fantastic. Bryant returned 15 punts in 2010, for 215 yards and two touchdowns including a whopping 93-yard score. Those two touchdowns were second only to Devin Hester of the Bears, who finished the season with three, on more than double the number of attempts (33) than Bryant logged in his 12 games that season.
In the fourth quarter of a game against the Indianapolis Colts, Bryant broke his ankle on a 21-yard kick-off return, which cost him the remainder of his rookie season. Then in 2011, he suffered a thigh bruise on a punt return which forced him to miss the remainder of that game.
Dez would go on to return 12 punts in 2012 his third season, but wasn’t able to replicate the success in the return game of his rookie season, that combined with his increased role and importance on offense has kept him from returning kicks since.
But on Tuesday’s first day of this week’s three-day minicamp inside The Star in Frisco, there was Dez again, returning punts, as he so often does during practice.
“I’m always in (special-teams coach Rich) Bisaccia’s ear,’’ Bryant said last week. “That’s why I’m back there practicing. I’m going to get me one of them, I’m telling you. I’m going to crib it. I’m telling you I’m going to score.”
With Dez now saying that he wants to get a chance to return kicks again, is it worth examining?
The initial thought is that it’s a bit silly to think that Bryant, who when healthy has proven to be one of the top wide receivers in the entire NFL would be put in a position to take part in one of the most violent situations in the game as a punt returner. Double down on this with the fact that Bryant has struggled with injuries the past few years due to his physical playing style even when playing receiver, which is much more protected than a returner, and compound that with the fact that Bryant hasn’t fielded a punt in a game in four seasons, and it becomes obvious, he should definitely NOT be the primary option for the Cowboys as a returner.
There are other weapons in Dallas, of course.
Brice Butler is having a good spring — especially if you include the money he collected in the locker room by betting on his Golden State Warriors.
Ryan Switzer experienced his first case of the dropsies on Tuesday but has otherwise been difficult to cover … unless you count The Star security guard’s pursuit of him.
The Cowboys drafted Switzer, one of the most prolific punt returners in college football history, in the fourth round of this year’s draft to challenge incumbent Lucky Whitehead for the majority of the return reps, and even Cole Beasley is more likely to be a full-time returner than Bryant. (Beasley and Whitehead, both nursing hamstring issues, did not practice Tuesday.)
But is there a situation where it could be a good idea to stick Bryant out there?
I can imagine a scenario, down by four or five points with a minute or so left in a playoff game, or late season game with major playoff implications, with the opponent punting from deep in their own end, where putting Bryant back deep would pay dividends.
First off, Bryant is still one of the five or so most dangerous players in the entire NFL with the ball in his hands, he’s shown the ability to score from anywhere on the field in the pass game as a catch and run player, and he would be a threat to score on that return — to “crib it’’ — as well.
Additionally, your opponents are all well aware of Dez’s capabilities, meaning that when they line up to punt and 88 trots out there and puts his heels on the 35-yard line, and the AT&T stadium crowd goes wild with anticipation, there’s a chance that the opposing punter could make an otherwise unforced error, shanking the punt and putting the Cowboys offense in an advantageous position.
Obviously this all becomes immaterial if Switzer’s dominance in the return game translates to the NFL the way the team hopes it will. But for now, there’s no harm in letting Bryant catch punts in practice, or even in pre-game work, and there’s even less harm in him talking about it. Because if the Giants or Eagles or Redskins are spending time getting ready for the possibility that Bryant lines up to return a punt, that’s time they aren’t spending getting ready for Switzer, Whitehead, or Beasley, and that has value in a league where ANY edge you can create over your opponents is important.
It is probably the least of the 2017 Dallas Cowboys' worries. But it's minicamp time ... a time for experimenting and questioning and, yeah, worrying.
And that even extends to the NFL's best offensive line.
"We have tremendous talent in our offensive line room," says Ezekiel Elliott, Who won a rushing title behind this group last year as a rookie. "We have five first-rounders in there, potentially. La’el (Collins) could have easily been a first-rounder. (Jonathan) Cooper is a first-rounder.
“We don’t know who’s going to be where but I know there’s a lot of talent there."
There have been changes from last year; of course: Ron Leary is gone to Denver and Doug Free is retired to a life of hunting and fishing.
For now, Collins is working at right tackle (A project that is so far a success) and young Chaz Green is trying his hand at left guard (to mixed results). But the group remains anchored by its trio of All-Pros, Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin.
“It always takes a little bit to kind of get in the groove," Zeke said. "That’s a group of guys that works so hard that you really don’t worry about them. You know that they’re going to get right."
Elliott’s testimony is reason enough to continue the experimenting, for sure, and the questioning, maybe. But not the worrying.
Linehan issued another vote of confidence for Kellen Moore, who is a point of obsession for some media people. But let’s stay focused on Dak Prescott, who as we reported on Monday is being granted more freedom at the line of scrimmage in an offensive increasingly tailored to his skills.
How did it work on Tuesday? Well, Dak tossed a pair of interceptions, as we detail in this position-group breakdown of the defense’s work starring Jeff Heath.
Prescott was credited by ESPN for a 15-of-23 passing effort during live work — not spectacular. The numbers went up in the two-minute drill but that ended badly on a Heath interception in the end zone.
As we reported Monday, the Cowboys signed undrafted free agent Lance Lenoir, a receiver who was at the workout Monday, replacing tight end M.J. McFarland, who was released to make room. … Rico Gathers had a sick day, a repeat of last week. That left more work for Jason Witten, termed a “marvel’’ by coordinator Scott Linehan. ... The Cowboys offensive linemen are fun to watch at work — and at play. When these practices are done, the group retreats to the locker room together. “Moving together like a herd,’’ as Fish noted …
Good reviews so far for newcomer Zac Dysert, the 27-year-old QB who joins Dallas as his seventh NFL team. “I’m trying to learn everyone’s name and everything like that,’’ he joked. … Some vets will have Wednesday off, likely including Jason Witten.
THE FINAL WORD
“We’re going to hand it to him, throw it to him – heck, if he can take a snap, we might give it to him that way. We’re excited about the opportunity.” — Running backs coach Gary Brown on the Zeke Plan.