Cleveland Browns: Will special teams improve in 2016?


Can the Cleveland Browns find more contributions from the special teams unit this season?

As was the case with every NFL team, the Cleveland Browns experienced numerous ups and downs with their special teams unit in 2015. The Browns were not expected to be elite in this category as the season began, bringing in a new punter and a rookie kicker. Nonetheless, the unit collectively made significant strides in 2015, finishing most often near the middle of NFL special teams rankings.

Normally, special teams is overlooked, and a Browns organization which is searching for answers is no different. Though they aren’t the most popular topics of conversation, the punting, kicking and returning elements of the game of football have a more substantial impact on the outcome of every game than many realize.

In most cases, kickers, punters and returners are criticized for their mistakes more often than they are recognized for their contributions. However, what special teams players bring to an NFL roster is critical, even when mistakes are made.

As the 2016 NFL season quickly approaches, the Browns find themselves without one of the bright spots of the special teams unit from previous seasons, punt returner Travis Benjamin. The former Browns wide receiver returned three punts for touchdowns during his time in Cleveland, and electrified fans with many other long returns. Benjamin’s speed presented a threat to opposing special teams units that will be difficult to replace.

While it is not yet known for sure who will replace Benjamin in the role, Browns fans have an inclination based on the unique abilities required for the position. Jordan Poyer seems to be the most probable to fill the spot. The 25-year-old specialist has returned punts before, and is a more sure-handed returner than Benjamin. While Poyer may not astound with amazing speed, he will ensure that no costly mistakes will be made.

In certain situations, a different returner may be more beneficial to spark the team. The Browns are fortunate enough to have more agile options in Tramon Williams, Taylor Gabriel, Duke Johnson and Justin Gilbert.

While they may come with more liability when it comes to ball security, there’s a chance one of these speedsters could pick up right where Benjamin left off and become one of the league’s most formidable returning threats.

Most likely, the kick and punt returning for the Browns will be done by committee. No matter who is filling the role, what will define the success of this area will be how well costly mistakes are minimized.

One of the brighter spots of the 2015 Browns season was their rookie kicker, Travis Coons. Coons did not easily make the roster out of training camp, barely edging out Carey Spear in a tight competition.

Making his first 18 field goal attempts, the rookie kicker set an NFL record for most consecutive field goal attempts made to start a career. This included his first career game-winning field goal, defeating the Ravens in Baltimore. Finishing 28 for32 in field goal attempts on the season and 22 for24 in 33-yard extra point attempts, Coons turned in a productive year for the Browns, who ranked 13th in the league in the area of kicking.

If there is any weak element of Coons as a kicker, it would be his range. Coons missed both of his attempts from 50 yards and beyond in 2015, accounting for two of his four misses. This is due to the high trajectory normally delivered by Coons, which allows him to be remarkably accurate from closer range.

Still, what the 24-year-old going into his second season brings to the Browns special teams unit is valuable. Even though he doesn’t have the strongest leg, Coons is a kicker who can limit misses and step up when the game is on the line, giving Browns fans at least one position to feel confident about entering 2016.

Punting is another area in which the Browns are expected to excel in 2016, as Andy Lee returns to the organization for a second season. Most often recognized for his 11 seasons in a San Francisco 49ers uniform, Lee is still trying to get acclimated in Cleveland. His 2015 campaign wasn’t at the caliber the three-time Pro Bowl selection is accustomed to, but his 41.3 net yard punting average was respectable. The Browns were mediocre in the area of punting as well in 2015, finishing 19th.

Despite a so-so punting year in 2015, the often overlooked and deemed insignificant aspect of the game shouldn’t be a concern to Browns fans. The potential is clearly there, and Lee’s first season is no indication of how his career as a whole has gone, or how the remainder of his time in Cleveland will be.

Punting is a critical part of the game, especially for a Browns team who may still wish to pride themselves in playing a very field-position-oriented type of game. Having one of the league’s best punters on the roster is extremely beneficial to the Browns, and is likely to pay off even more in the future.

The Browns have also placed a sizable amount of emphasis on preventing long kick or punt returns; another way in which special teams can impact each game. In 2015, Cleveland ranked second in all of football in opposing field position following kickoffs, and eighth in punt return coverage. This shows that the Browns have been winning the field position game, a large part of the role of a special teams unit.

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Much of the credit to this recent success on special teams should be given to an unsung hero, Chris Tabor. Tabor, whom head coach Hue Jackson decided to bring back for the 2016 season, has coached football at various levels since 1993.

Though originally an offensive guru, Tabor has found a home in Cleveland, and  has expertise in the underrated element of special teams. Coming back for another season as special teams coordinator, the Missouri native aims to continue to make his imprint on the Browns, leading a very good special teams unit under the radar.

The Browns certainly have a considerable amount of positions to focus on as training camp begins, and it seems that special teams will be among the least of their worries.

Still, as always, special teams will be important to watch as training camp and preseason begins. The decision the coaching staff has to make regarding kick and punt returning will be interesting. Plus, even though the kicking and punting seems solid, improvement is always welcomed, especially from one of the most seasoned professional punters in football.

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Coach Tabor will surely have his special teams ready to go once again in 2016. The only question is, can it have more of a direct impact on the result of games? Or, will the Browns be victims of such unfortunate plays once again which change the outcome of games. Hopefully, special teams can help make the difference in 2016.