FRISCO, Texas - This offseason has been headlined by conversations surrounding the Dallas Cowboys coaching staff changes and shake ups on the offensive side of the ball, dodging a mortar round on defense by convincing Dan Quinn to stay put. Questions regarding the special teams unit have quietly surfaced in the background as well, and answers are required.
Noah Brown and Luke Gifford have both departed in this year's free agency spree, taking their talents to the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans, respectively, and that's a lot of firepower to part ways with if you're special teams coordinator John "Bones" Fassel.
"We've talked about that with our vets and with our rookies the last couple days," said Fassel just ahead of the start of OTAs. "Noah was a fantastic special teams guy for us. Gifford was one of the best in the league - great special teams guy for us, and we were the first ones to congratulate him on a new opportunity with the door open for somebody else to step in to fill that."
Brown and Gifford were both longtime aces for the Cowboys on special teams, and the latter recently surpassed C.J. Goodwin - another high-impact contributor on the unit that opted to remain in Dallas for 2023 - in tallying up tackles for Fassel.
The unit is now much younger as a whole and Goodwin, the elder statesman, is the only one you can point to and know for certain what is being brought to the table.
It's paramount that all contenders to replace Brown and Gifford make their presence felt early this summer, and throughout the entirety of it in the hopes of getting the nod during final roster cuts in late August.
"Whether it's [Devin] Harper or [Jabril] Cox or Damone [Clark], [DeMarvion] Overshown, [Tyrus Wheat], Isaiah [Land], and whoever else we have in here," Fassel said, listing some of the more promising prospects to keep an eye on. "And then, at receiver, I think that's going to be an awesome competition for Noah's kind of role, that fourth receiver, special teams guy, whether it's [Jalen] Tolbert or [Dennis] Houston or [Dontario] Drummond or [Jalen Moreno-Cropper] or any of the guys we have.
"They know that it's open competition and there's not room for everybody. We don't put pressure on it. We say this is competition, help your teammate out, challenge them, make each other better, and there will be some really cool battles where our team has a lot of spots that are 'he's going to be the starter, he's going to be the starter, he's going to be the starter.'"
One player that will be as much in Fassel's plans as he is Brian Schottenheimer's is rookie sixth-round pick Deuce Vaughn, though it's to-be-determined what his role will be, but don't go ruling out the possibility of personal protector, his size in no way equaling his toughness.
"I don't really project him as far as a role," said Fassel of Vaughn. "The vision for him is [to] get some punt return work in, some kick return work in [in minicamp]. I think it's to play punt protection, whether it's PP or a wing. Then, you know, like everybody, see what they can do on kickoff."
All told, the special teams competition is set to be a friendly battle royale, and that means there's plenty of opportunity for the youth movement to prove themselves in what feels like more of a Hunger Games movie than a looming offseason program.
Count on everyone helping everyone else survive, but ultimately, everyone can't win.
"There's a few [spots] on special teams where it's wide open," said Fassel. "So, training camp should be pretty wild."
May the odds be ever in their favor.