For a long time, the Cleveland Browns' special teams unit was among the best in the league. Things kind of fell apart for the unit last year, though.
Joshua Cribbs was not as effective on kickoff returns due to the increase in touchbacks. Reggie Hodges missed the entire season after an injury in training camp. Ryan Pontbriand, one of the most reliable long-snappers in the league, went into a funk and was cut mid-season. The only guy who remained money was Phil Dawson. Do things look any brighter for the unit in 2012?
1. PHIL DAWSON - STARTING KICKER
In his first 13 years in the NFL, Dawson has made a total of 17 field goals beyond 50 yards. An astounding 7 of those kicks came last year, when he only missed on one kick from beyond 50 yards. No one should question whether his leg is still strong enough to connect on the big kicks.
Dawson finished last season hitting 24-of-29 field goals. Presumably, his percentage would have been better had so many snaps not been botched during the year, screwing up Dawson's ability to get a good kick up. Dawson is the team's franchise player for the second year in a row, meaning he will make $3.81 million this year. He won't have to worry about Wolfert in camp.
Player Quality: A
Job Security: A+
Final Roster Odds: 100%
2. JEFF WOLFERT - BACKUP KICKER
What defines Wolfert? Accuracy. He never missed an extra point at Missouri and was good on field goals too. As this article states, Wolfert was a bit frustrated in 2010 because the teams who gave him a tryout were looking for people who could blast the ball versus putting it through the uprights.
Wolfert had a one-year stint in the UFL, where he connected on 9-of-10 field goals. The Browns signed him after the lockout last season as an additional kicker in camp. Wolfert came as billed -- he didn't have many misses in training camp, and he went 2-for-2 in the preseason. He didn't make the final roster because of Dawson, but the team is bringing him back for another year. Cleveland would have to pay Dawson over $5 million to use the franchise tag on him in 2013, something they probably aren't going to do. If Wolfert is still available next offseason, it wouldn't be surprising to see him get offered a contract.
Final Roster Odds: <1%
Practice Squad Odds: 5% (but he'll be kept in mind for the future)
1. REGGIE HODGES - STARTING PUNTER / HOLDER
Hodges was masterful in 2010, posting career highs in his distance and net average on punts. He even had an awesome 68-yard run against the New Orleans Saints.
On Day 4 of training camp last year, Hodges' left leg gave out during a routine attempt at a punt. He tore his Achilles doing something he had done thousands of times in his career. I don't know if you can attribute it to pushing too hard after the lockout, or just a fluke. Hodges has reportedly recovered fully and will be good-to-go for training camp.
Player Quality: B+
Job Security: B
Final Roster Odds: 90%
2. SPENCER LANNING - BACKUP PUNTER / HOLDER
We can't count Lanning out when it comes to his chances at making the roster. As much as we hope that Hodges returns to being as good as he was in 2010, that is not a guarantee. If Hodges struggles in training camp with his depth or accuracy, Lanning has the credentials to fill in.
Lanning was with the Chicago Bears as a rookie in training camp last year. Bears special teams coach Dave Toub had high praise for Lanning:
"He hasn’t had a bad day since he’s been here," said Toub. "I’ve never seen, to be honest with you, a rookie come in and punt as consistent and powerful as he has."
The Bears reportedly tried to see if anyone wanted him in a trade, but no one bit before they had to cut him. He was originally signed to compete for the Jaguars' starting punter role in 2012, but was cut after the team spent a third-round draft pick on a punter. We'll see if he's able to bump Hodges from his starting role.
Final Roster Odds: 10%
Practice Squad Odds: 5%
1. CHRISTIAN YOUNT - STARTING LONG SNAPPER
Yount came in as a mid-season replacement for Ryan Pontbriand last year and did not appear to have any problems. Yount began the 2011 season as an undrafted free agent with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He played the first half of the season for them while their regular long snapper was out with an injury. In an interview with the team website last year, Yount explained how he got in to long snapping:
"I got started going into freshman high school ball," Yount said. "I wasn’t a center. My dad suggested it to me to get more playing time. I was a defensive lineman and he had a buddy that was a long-snapper in college and said, ‘Hey, why don’t you try long-snapping?’ I did it, kept doing it, kept working at it, kept getting better at it and it got me into college (at UCLA). It got me a scholarship and got me here."
Pontbriand was in a funk last season, but if the team decides they want him back, he is available and healthy.
Final Roster Odds: 95%
KICK / PUNT RETURNER
Joshua Cribbs remains the favorite to return kicks and punts again, but he has a lot of competition as he enters the final year of his contract. Last year, Jordan Norwood saw action as the punt returner and Buster Skrine returned kickoffs while Cribbs was hurt. Rookie fourth-round pick Travis Benjamin is expected to see some action at kick and punt returner in camp as well. Second-year defensive back James Dockery could also be in the mix.
In an interview with FOXSportsOhio, Cribbs is setting the bar high for his role on special teams in 2012:
"I’m going to make the Pro Bowl this year for covering kicks and for returning kicks," Cribbs said. "And if they want to decide to throw me the ball more, I’m going to make a bunch of catches, too."
In January, I wrote an article that reviewed the Browns' special teams coverage from the 2011 season. I would expect Joshua Cribbs to be the team's leading special teams player again. Kaluka Maiava might see less action there to begin the season if he starts while Scott Fujita is suspended. Fourth-round pick James-Michael Johnson is expected to play a key role on special teams right from the get-go. Cornerback Buster Skrine should be an asset on special teams again. When it comes to the "gunner" position, besides Cribbs, we might see James Dockery and rookie Trevin Wade battle it out. Linebacker Quinton Spears will try to make the team again as a coverage specialist.
The final key thing to consider is the Browns' backup running back position. There is a chance that Chris Ogbonnaya and Montario Hardesty will have to show that they can contribute better than the other guy on special teams in order to make the final roster.