Nov 16, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns special teams coordinator Chris Tabor at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
When the Cleveland Browns open the 2015 NFL this September, they will have three new players holding down the key positions in the kicking game.
It’s a bit of a gamble for the team, and one that may be anything but a smart bet.
The one area that should be the safest bet is at punter, where 11-year veteran Andy Lee will hold down the position. The Browns acquired Lee over the weekend in a trade with San Francisco, and a quick look through the 49ers’ record book shows that Lee is the franchise leader in punts (941), punting average (46.2), punts downed inside the 20-yard line (300) and net average (39.5). He also ranks fifth in NFL history in both gross average and net average.
Lee and Shane Lechler are the only punters to maintain a 45.0 average with at least 900 career punts.
“I’m excited about my new start and becoming a member of the Cleveland Browns,” Lee said of the trade. “I’ve heard so many good things about the city of Cleveland and the loyalty and passion of the fans from my former teammate Phil Dawson. I’ve also heard some very positive things about the type of organization and team the Browns are building so my family and I are very much looking forward to becoming a part of it.”
So far, so good.
Things get a little dicier, however, as we move along to place kicker. After releasing Garrett Hartley last month, the Browns will head into training camp with Carey Spear and Travis Coons as the only kickers on the roster.
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Spear spent the training camp last summer with Philadelphia, eventually losing the kicking job to Cody Parkey, who would go on to make the Pro Bowl. At Vanderbilt, he was a three-time captain, making 39-of-50 field goals, including 35-of-43 during his final two seasons with the Commodores.
In two years with the Washington Huskies, Coons was 24-of-30 on field goal attempts and missed only one extra point in 102 tries.
So while both players seem capable, the reality is that neither have ever kicked in the swirling winds that come off Lake Erie in November and December.
That could be a problem.
Then there’s the question of who will be centering the ball to Lee and Spear or Casey.
The Browns waived long snapper Christian Yount last month, leaving Charley Hughlett as the team’s long snapper. The Browns signed Hughlett off Kansas City’s practice squad in December. He was originally signed as a rookie free agent with the Dallas Cowboys out of Central Florida in 2012. He has also spent time with New England, but has yet to appear in a regular season game.
Hughlett spent last season on the Browns’ practice squad after the club signed him when Yount struggled early in the season.
While on paper it looks like the Browns are taking a big gamble overhauling so many key components on special teams, the numbers from last year show that maybe the changes were needed. The team was just 28th in the league in field goal percentage, converting just 78.1 percent of their attempts, and 17th in net punting average with 39.2 yards per punt.
Even knowing that, its clear that special teams coordinator Chris Tabor has his work cut out for him this summer if the Browns are going to see their gamble pay off in a big way.