Kicking is a big question mark, but so is the punter competition
Special teams wasn’t always a problem for the Cowboys. Just two years ago, they had the most accurate kicker in NFL history in Dan Bailey and one of the league’s better punters in Chris Jones. But Bailey is gone and his replacement, Brett Maher, has struggled with consistency, and Jones had a down year in 2018.
For Maher, his struggles have continued into this year. While his 80.6% field goal success rate in 2018 was solid, a breakdown of his kicks revealed a strange trend: Maher hit just 63% of kicks between the 40 and 49 yard marks, but was 88% everywhere else on the field. Maher was also 60% on all field goals in the final six games of the season, including the two playoff games.
So far throughout the preseason, Maher has hit three of five field goals, with his two misses coming from 35 yards and 52 yards. Both are concerning for different reasons: missing from 35 is a red flag for any kicker, and missing from 52 is concerning because Maher was most reliable from that range last year, hitting six of seven beyond 50 yards.
Yet for some reason, Maher is the only kicker on the roster despite his struggles. Backup punter Kasey Redfern (more on him in a bit) has kicked field goals in practice too, but Maher has been the sole kicker in both preseason games, an indication of his standing in the “competition.”
But should the Cowboys want to bring in actual competition for Maher, there are plenty of options. The one on everyone’s lips is former Falcons kicker Matt Bryant, who was released by the team in the offseason after a ten year career in Atlanta, during which he hit 88.7% of his field goals, specifically hitting 89.3% of his field goals in Maher’s struggle area in the 40s range. Bryant, 44 years old, is also a Texas native who played at Baylor and might relish the chance to play for his home-state team.
So too is free agent kicker Nick Rose, who played for the Texas Longhorns. He began his career with the Chargers in 2017 but was cut two games into the season after hitting just one of three attempts. He was signed by the Redskins later on and hit 90.9% of his field goals through eight games. He went unsigned for the 2018 season, but was the kicker for the San Antonio Commanders of the short-lived AAF, where he hit all 14 of his attempts, including two from beyond 50 yards.
Both of those kickers would represent good competition for Maher, and could be solid replacements if their presence doesn’t push the second-year kicker to perform better. While Maher doesn’t have any serious competition right now, there is a battle brewing for the punter spot.
Chris Jones’ numbers dropped last year in what marked a surprising regression for him. While Jones looks to be better thus far in preseason, he’s seeing great play from his rival, Redfern. Through two games, Redfern has nine punts for a 48.4 yard average with five punts downed inside the 20-yard line.
Contrast that with Jones’ four punts for a 46.75 yard average and just one punt inside the 20-yard line. While Jones has had a smaller sample size as the first string punter, he’s definitely getting outplayed by Redfern so far. It was at this point last year that Maher was thought as nothing more than a camp body, and he ended up beating out Bailey in a shocker. If Redfern can keep this up, he might be able to unseat Jones.
Regardless of what happens, the Cowboys have several questions to answer on special teams. Tavon Austin is likely going to be the main punt returner in the regular season, but Reggie Davis hasn’t exactly proved his value as a secondary punt returner should anything happen to Austin.
Special teams as a whole was a concerning area all year for Dallas last season under first time coordinator Keith O’Quinn, which is part of the reason the Cowboys made a change at their assistant special teams coordinator position. Halfway through the preseason in Year 2 for O’Quinn, it seems that there are still things to figure out.