We're finished with the Hard Hits of this week's coverage with the linebackers, so now it's time to close things out with the Klutch Kicks of the special teams unit. Because there isn't really a true "depth chart" when it comes to special teams, today's preview will be broken down into seperate sections, as opposed to ranking Phil Dawson, Dave Zastudil, and Ryan Pontbriand one, two, and three.
1. PHIL DAWSON - STARTING KICKER
If it were all about performance heading into training camp this season, then Phil Dawson's job would be safe. That's not all it's about though, as Dawson has been asking for a new contract throughout the offseason, and could possibly hold out in part of training camp if he doesn't get one.
Dawson is the final member of the Browns' return team in 1999, and I'd rather not see him go yet; it'd be nice to see him retire as a Brown many years down the road, as kickers have a long lifespan in the league. He's coming off of a pretty strong season, connecting on 30-of-36 field goals, setting career highs in both attempts and makes. He also had a career-long 56 yarder, and was 3-of-6 on kicks of 50 or more yards (meaning he was 27-of-30 on kicks 49 yards or less).
Many Browns fans think they would miss Dawson, but that a replacement would be easy enough to find. Tell that to half the teams in the league who have been through ten kickers in just a few years. I'd rather maintain what has been working on special teams.
Job Security: A
Player Quality: B+
Final Roster Odds (w/o contract considered): 100%
2. PARKER DOUGLASS - ROOKIE BACKUP KICKER
I bet half of our community here is bigger than the 5-8, 170-pound Douglas, but that doesn't really matter for a kicker, does it? Douglas should be doing nothing more than providing an extra leg in camp. Any praise that comes from Mangini should not be interpreted that Dawson could lose the job in jeopardy.
In mini-camp, he did showed ability to hit a few 50+ yard kicks. If Dawson is a stickler and holds out, I see the Browns going after a free agent veteran kicker. If for whatever reason they can't sign one, then Douglas might just get a shot.
Here's a video on Douglass on YouTube.
Final Roster Odds: 5%
Practice Squad Odds: 1%
DAVE ZASTUDIL - STARTING PUNTER
Sometimes I get a little bit frustrated during games at Zastudil's punts, but overall he does not present a weakness. His punt average is in the top third of the league, and he's right in the middle of the pack at hitting kicks inside the 20 yard line. If our offense could move the ball more effectively, those numbers might go up with him not having to face the pressure of being backed up in the opponent's end zone.
Currently, Zastudil is not facing any competition in camp.
Job Security: A+
Player Quality: B
Final Roster Odds: 100%
RYAN PONTBRIAND - STARTING LONG SNAPPER
Think to yourself -- how many years has Ryan Pontbriand been with the Cleveland Browns? It's six, meaning he'll be entering his seventh season this year. Pontbriand has been the AFC's selection to the Pro Bowl at the long snapper position the past two years, rewarding him for being the best in the conference at what he does.
He also contributes a little bit on special teams kick coverage as a tackler, if necessary.
Job Security: A+
Player Quality: A+
Final Roster Odds: 101%
Note: For these next few sections, rather than mini-profiles, it will be general notes on the position.
Kick Returner / Punt Returner
One player has the honor of fulfilling both of these roles, and that is Joshua Cribbs. After an injury at the start of last season, Cribbs didn't seem like himself for the first several weeks. As the season went on, he seemed to regain the confidence and "X-factor" that made him a threat on any given kick. Still, in 2008, he averaged about 5 yards less on kickoffs returns and 5 yards less on punt returns than he did in 2007. I attribute some of that to losing a few key special team blockers to free agency and to injuries.
Among the other candidates who could return kicks/punts are Syndric Steptoe and rookie Brian Robiskie, as well as defensive back Gerard Lawson.
Again, we point to Joshua Cribbs, who might just be a better gunner than he is a kick returner. The only negative is that Cribbs' aggressiveness and motivation to go all out, both as a gunner and on returns, could lead to a nasty collision that takes him out for a few games. As for our second gunner, I think the Browns will probably be looking at a variety of candidates in training camp.
The Browns brought over LB Blake Costanzo from the Buffalo Bills, who led their team in special teams tackles last season. Costanzo might pick up the slack for the Browns losing LB Kris Griffin in the offseason. I'd imagine that young linebackers Beau Bell and Kalkua Maiava will also be in the mix on special teams. Backup safety Nick Sorensen is also a reliable special teams veteran, having once captained the Jacksonville Jaguars special teams unit.
This season, a rule change lowered the number of people who could be on the wedge to just two players. With veteran special teamer Lennie Friedman no longer with the Browns, which offensive lineman will be asked to fulfill that role?
Special Teams Position Quality (Overall): A-
With an above average kicker, an average punter, and an elite long snapper and kick returner/gunner, the special teams unit deserves a healthy "A-".
The reason the grade wasn't any higher? I saw a dropoff in the Browns' ability to block for Cribbs last season, so we'll have to see how new special teams coordinator Brad Seely handles things.