FRISCO, Texas -- There has to be fearlessness in a punt returner in the NFL.
Ryan Switzer has some fearlessness to him. Anybody with a tattoo on the inside of his lower lip, like Switzer, has to be considered fearless.
Since the Dallas Cowboys drafted Switzer in the fourth round three weeks ago, his lower-lip tattoo has been talked about more than his game in some ways. Such is life for a rookie introduced to a new team where the offbeat becomes the story because players don’t take the field in pads until July for training camp.
“I’ve got a tattoo on my lip, there’s worse things in the world, trust me,” Switzer said. “There’s guys that have tattoos on their face, on their neck, and I think that’s a little more fearless than [a tattoo on the inside of his lip].”
When it comes to returning punts, however, Switzer believes he is fearless.
The receiver returned seven for touchdowns in his career at North Carolina, one off the NCAA record. He had five as a freshman in 2013 and two more as a junior in 2015. He left as the school’s all-time leader in punt-return yards (1,082) and touchdowns. His first return for a score went for 85 yards against Virginia, and Switzer averaged a ridiculous 20.9 yards per return that season.
As it came closer to the Cowboys’ selection in the fourth round, the debate was between San Diego State running back Donnel Pumphrey and Switzer. When the Philadelphia Eagles traded up a spot ahead of the Cowboys to take Pumphrey, Dallas immediately turned in Switzer’s name.
The Cowboys need punt-return help. They have gone 110 punt returns without a touchdown since Oct. 13, 2013, when Dwayne Harris returned a punt 86 yards against the Washington Redskins for a score. In the past three seasons, they have not had a punt return longer than 39 yards. Last season they averaged just 7.1 yards per return.
“You’ve got to have some spunk to you,” Switzer said. “When you’ve got 11 guys running down the field trying to kill you and you’re looking up, it takes some guts. But I know [special-teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia] coaches those guys up really well. I know they take great pride in blocking, like my guys at Carolina did. So if I’m back there, it will be up to me to make a play and trusting those 10 guys in front of me.”
The Cowboys’ drought in the kick-return game is even more pronounced. The last time they had a kickoff return for a touchdown came Sept. 15, 2008, when Felix Jones had a 98-yard score against the Eagles. The streak without a return for a touchdown is up to 358 kickoffs.
The Cowboys aren’t sure if they will use Switzer in that spot. Normally, the Cowboys like their kickoff returners a little thicker than the 181-pounder.
“I don’t know that they’re so different,” coach Jason Garrett said of returning punts and kickoffs. “He has a lot of good skills, both as a position player at receiver in the slot and also as a returner. So I would not put that past him.”
The Cowboys hope to use Switzer in a variety of ways. He caught 19 touchdown passes. He even threw two touchdown passes. He was a running back in high school before becoming a receiver, and carried 25 times in his Tar Heels career.
“The one thing he gives us is some depth at the slot position, hadn’t really had that,” Linehan said. “If [Cole] Beasley were to not be available we would be in a world of hurt here. So that’s that part. The other part is that gives us the versatility of multiple personnel groupings we can get into. Spread the field, no-back sets where I think Switz can end up gaining some good matchups. He’s an old high school running back, so who knows, we might run a run here or there.
“On top of his return ability, being able to change the game there, and the ability to play a key position on offense, he’s a big add.”