Cowboys return game must show improvement in 2016

With the Dallas Cowboys set to open training-camp practices Saturday, here is the latest in a position-by-position look at their roster:


Returning players: K Dan Bailey, P Chris Jones, LS L.P. Ladouceur

Gone from last season: None

New this season: K Matt Wile (free agent), LS Zach Wood (undrafted free agent)

Position coaches: Rich Bisaccia (third season as Cowboys special-teams coordinator), Keith O’Quinn (second season as special-teams assistant)

Biggest issue: If we extend this to the coverage and return units and away from the kicker, punter and long snapper, it has to be the punt-return game. The Cowboys averaged just 5.5 yards per punt return last season, with a long of 28 yards from Lucky Whitehead. Field position is a major stat in the NFL. The shorter the field, the better the percentage an offensive drive will end in points. Last season the Cowboys had just nine drives start in their opponents’ territory; they had 106 drives start at the Dallas 20-yard line or worse. Not all of this was the fault of the punt-return unit -- or kickoff-return unit -- but the Cowboys must do a better job flipping the field in 2016 to make life easier for the offense.

Player to watch: Bailey is the most accurate field goal kicker in NFL history (90.6 percent) and has proved to be as good in the clutch with 10 game-winners in the final two minutes of regulation or overtime. Last season he made 30 of 32 field goal attempts and beat Washington with a 54-yarder with nine seconds to play. In close games, having a reliable kicker is a must. In the past, Bailey has used his training-camp time in Oxnard, California, to get used to sometimes uneven footing and different winds, which has helped him during the regular season.

Medical report: Bailey, Jones and Ladouceur are healthy. During training camp, they will be given their days of rest. Wile is on hand to help spell both kickers, while Wood can take some snaps away from Ladouceur, who is 35.

Play it out: The Cowboys have committed financially to their core special-teamers over the last few years. This offseason they re-upped with Jeff Heath, James Hanna and Kyle Wilber on multi-year deals worth more than $1 million per season. Andrew Gachkar will make $1.3 million in 2016 in the second year of his deal. There will be some mixing and matching with younger players, but there can be no denying the Cowboys have put their money into special teams.

Notable number: 1,586. Since joining the Cowboys early in the 2005 season, Ladouceur has been perfect with every snap he has had. He has been clean on 339 field goal attempts, 475 extra points and 772 punts.

Quote board: “He’s just a pro. I admired him before I got here and I admire him even more (since) I’ve been here. He’s a tireless worker. He’s constantly working on his body and his flexibility and his conditioning and understands our system inside and out. He has a great relationship with Dan and Chris. I don’t really believe in security blankets because we all can break a toe in a heartbeat, but his personality and the man that he is, the worker that he is, I look forward coming to work with him every day.” -- Bisaccia on Ladouceur.

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