The Cleveland Browns have done a great job in improving the team by trades and free agent signings, but in the process, special teams were neglected. That wasn’t the case in the draft.
The Cleveland Browns and John Dorsey have done a great job in improving the offensive and defensive units by trades and free agency signings, but in the process, special teams were depleted, and the draft gives them a chance to rebuild.
Gone is Jabrill Peppers, who was the leading punt returner as well as kickoff returner in 2018. Antonio Callaway returned punts when Peppers went down with an injury last year, and Dontrell Hilliard was used as a kickoff return man late in the season, and actually put up somewhat better numbers than Peppers (return average 24 .0 yards per return versus 21.5 for Peppers).
Callaway and Hilliard are presumed to be the leading candidates to be first string return men this year. Duke Johnson returned punts in 2016, but had only three in 2017 and zero in 2018. He was not a factor on special teams last year.
The following table lists the sixteen players who had the most game snaps on special teams last season:
Six of those players are gone, and several of most the others are fighting for jobs this summer: Tanner Vallejo, Orson Charles, D’Juan Hines, Tavierre Thomas and Ray-Ray Armstrong among them. Vallejo and Thomas were co-leaders in special teams tackles with six apiece. In addition, though Nick Chubb was a major contributor on special teams last years, it may be that the Browns will want him to focus more on his role on offense, and if so, he might not be used as much on special teams.
Thus, new special teams coach Mike Priefer, coming over from the Vikings, has his work cut out for him to replace the departed players, from a unit that as a whole performed at a low level in 2018.
Corner Greedy Williams and linebacker Sione Takitaki are expected to be major contributors on special teams, and it would not be a shock if either or both make first string by Week 1. Similarly, Miami safety Sheldrick Redwine, Alabama linebacker Mack Wilson and Tualane cornerback Donnie Lewis are going to get serious looks.
It might be tough to make first string on the defensive 11 this year, but special teams are definitely an opportunity for some enterprising young players to get playing time from the get-go this year.
The Browns also drafted a new kicker. Austin Siebert, from Baker Mayfield University. Last year’s kicker, Greg Joseph was not impressive in the early going, though he did knock in a knuckleball to beat Baltimore last year, a feat which will make him a Dawg Pound hero for the rest of his life.
Joseph seemed to get better and stronger as the season went on, so it comes as a bit of a surprise that the Browns went for a kicker in the draft. Siebert has to have an edge to make the team, but Joseph is not going to roll over and die. If Joseph continues to improve, he might have a legitimate shot at keeping his job.
The 2019 crop of undrafted free agents is also going to be looked over by coach Priefer and the rest of the special teams coaching staff. The players are always listed according to their position of defense or offense but pay attention to the ones that have a nose for the ball on special teams.
The right player has an excellent shot at making the 53 man roster, especially if he can replace Peppers or Boddy-Calhoun as gunners on the coverage teams. The team may also audition a few returners in the preseason. Right now Callaway and Hilliard are the only proven returners, though Jarvis Landry and Duke Johnson are available in an emergency.