Today's special teams preview for training camp will be a little bit different than the other ones we've been running. We already covered kicker and punter on Sunday, but we still have long snapper, the return game, and coverage guys left to cover. Those areas are covered in today's general special teams preview, but the only position that will have a profile is long snapper -- the other areas will just have general notes listed.
1. CHRISTIAN YOUNT - STARTING LONG SNAPPER
Do you technically label a long snapper as a starter? Whatever.
This will be Christian Yount's third year with the Cleveland Browns, and he has done a perfectly fine job in that role. Yount is the only primary specialist returning on special teams -- kicker, punter, kick returner, and punt returner will all see a new player in those roles.
Yount was a restricted free agent this offseason, but the Browns tendered him to bring him back for another year. He seems like the type of player who it would make sense to give a contract extension too, right? Yount also endeared himself to Browns fans (or at least, me) after the Super Bowl when he tweeted this after Ray Lewis' post-game speech:
What are the odds that right now Ray Lewis is thinking about the forearm shiver I gave him earlier this year when he tried to block me.— Christian Yount (@TheYount) February 4, 2013
Final Roster Odds: 100%
KICK / PUNT RETURNER
Punt Returner: Let's start with punt returner, because I think this is a fairly obvious one: Travis Benjamin will be the team's primary punt returner. He had 3 punt returns in 2012, and 2 of them went for 40+ yard returns, including a 93-yard touchdown return. It is tough to accept the fact that our special teams warrior in Joshua Cribbs is gone, but I am certainly looking forward to how Benjamin can electrify in this role.
The backups at punt returner should include Davone Bess and Jordan Norwood. Bess saw extensive punt return work in Miami. He has averaged 10.4 yards per punt return over five years as a punt returner, but never recorded a touchdown. By comparison, Joshua Cribbs averaged averaged 11.0 yards per punt return in his career, with 3 touchdowns. Norwood has the shiftiness to be an intriguing punt returner, but with two guys ahead of him on the depth chart, he'll need to focus on contributing as a wide receiver in camp.
Kick Returner: This is where things get tough. Maybe I'm just used to Joshua Cribbs' bigger frame, but I can't see Travis Benjamin, at 5-10, 175 pounds, taking those hard shots on kickoffs all season. I think he's too valuable as a punt returner and a wide receiver for that. Benjamin returned 3 kickoffs for 76 yards for the Browns last year.
I think this position is wide open. Per Mary Kay Cabot of the Plain Dealer, back during minicamp, it was actually Johnson Bademosi who got "first dibs" as the kick returner during practice. That may have just been the luck-of-the-draw that day, though. The other people who saw reps at kick returner included CB Buster Skrine, WR Travis Benjamin, WR Mike Edwards, RB Dion Lewis and CB Dominique Croom. Skrine has had the most work at kick returner over the years as a backup among the aforementioned group
CB Johnson Bademosi was really an asset in special teams coverage last year, to the point where some members of the media thought he was worthy of a Pro Bowl spot. Bademosi will be in the mix to play safety this year, but I imagine he'll be considered a special teams "ace" this year, especially since S Ray Ventrone was not re-signed.
The other current Browns who made tackles on special teams last year include CB Buster Skrine, LB Craig Robertson, LB L.J. Fort, CB Trevin Wade, LB Tank Carder, S Tashaun Gipson, LB James-Michael Johnson, RB Chris Ogbonnaya, and FB Owen Marecic.
The only players who are true locks to stick around on that list are Skrine, Robertson, and Gipson. If Gipson and Robertson start, they might not see as many special teams reps. I'd expect Skrine to continue being a gunner on special teams, along with Bademosi, although newcomer Chris Owens could also challenge for that role. Owens had 5 special teams tackles in 2012, and was also a top special teams tackler for the Falcons in 2010 and 2011.
TE Gary Barnidge played a bit of special teams in 2012 for the Panthers, recording 5 tackles and recovering a fumble. OLB Quentin Groves blocked a kick for the Arizona Cardinals, to go along with 3 tackles.
My projection is that Carder has more of an impact on special teams this year. If Johnson sticks around as a backup, he'll definitely need to make his mark on special teams. The Browns' rookie defensive backs, including S Jamoris Slaughter and CB Leon McFadden, should also get some looks on special teams if they don't start.
That finishes up our preview on special teams. Since the kick return role seems wide open, our poll asks which player you think is most likely to secure that role.