Between offense, defense, and special teams, I don't think there is any doubt which unit is the most "complete" on the team: special teams. That might seem like a negative to the offense and defense, but it is also a tribute to just how good our special teams unit is (with a little thanks to a player called Joshua Cribbs).
PHIL DAWSON - STARTING KICKER
Phil Dawson (#4)
Experience: 11 years
Note: I wouldn't put too much weight into his continued contract talks.
Before training camp even had a chance to get underway, the Browns waived kicker Shaun Suisham, which pretty much removes any chance of the team keeping another kicker over Dawson. Even if Dawson was competing with another kicker, pretty much everything would be in his favor:
- He's the only player who has been with the team since 1999, and most of the fans like him.
- His kicking abilities haven't declined with age. While he gets few opportunities to kick, he was still 17-of-19 last season, including 5-of-6 from the 40-49 range.
The only thing I could complain about is that in 7 of his 11 seasons, Dawson has missed one of his extra point tries. Those are the type of "gimme" points that you expect to be automatic. People have complained about his lack of distance on kickoffs, but I've never seen any major issues with his kicks. Maybe that is a tribute to our outstanding coverage unit.
Job Security: A+
Player Quality: A
Final Roster Odds: 100%
1. DAVE ZASTUDIL - STARTING PUNTER
Dave Zastudil (#15)
Experience: 8 years
College: Ohio University
Note: Will he be fully recovered from last year's knee injury?
A knee injury cut Zastudil's season short last year after just eight games, but I'd expect him to resume his duties as the team's starting punter this year.
With the Browns' offensive struggles early on last season, the team was forced to punt early and often. After 49 punts, Zastudil averaged 44.7 yards per kick (that is almost a full five yards more than Hodges). Zastudil was also off to a great start by downing 51% of his punts inside the 20. To compare, two seasons earlier when he had 49 punts over 12 games, he only downed 28.5% of his punts inside the 20. Obviously how good of a team you are might play a factor in where you are punting from, but the fact remains that Zastudil was doing his job when called upon last season.
This year, if Zastudil shows that he is healthy, he should be a lock to make the roster. If he seems terribly off as a result of last season's injury, then that is where Hodges will warrant another look.
Job Security: A-
Player Quality: B+
Final Roster Odds: 98%
2. REGGIE HODGES - INSURANCE PUNTER
Reggie Hodges (#2)
Experience: 3 years
College: Ball State
Note: Hanging around just so the team can ensure Zastudil is healthy.
Hodges doesn't have the same distance on his punts that Zastudil did, but I can't complain too much about his performance last year. Overall, he was servicable, which is all I can expect from a guy who is picked off the waiver wire mid-way through the season. There were also a few instances in which his short kicking ability paid off -- we were able to down several punts inside the 10-yard line if we were punting from our own territory.
I can't mention Hodges without bringing up the awful effort he gave after a muffed snap by Ryan Pontbriand against the Kansas City Chiefs though. Yes, the play was a disaster -- it was on the ground and there was no way Hodges had a chance to pick up the ball and kick it. However, he could've easily fallen on top of it and taken the safety, or he could have booted the live ball out of the back of the end zone. Instead, he walked up to the ball, turned around as if to say, "please don't hit me," and then watched several Chiefs dive on top of the ball instead for a touchdown. Ugh.
Player Quality: C-
Final Roster Odds: 2%
RYAN PONTBRIAND - STARTING LONG SNAPPER
Ryan Pontbriand (#64)
Experience: 7 years
Note: Still one of the league's best in my book.
Pontbriand will be entering his eighth season as the team's long snapper, and his only blemish came last season against the Chiefs (the same play mentioned in Hodges' section above). I wouldn't necessarily say he snapped the ball bad in terms of accuracy. Instead, for whatever reason, he snapped the ball early at a time when Nick Sorensen was motioning some sort of signal with his hand. The ball grazed Sorensen's hand, and the play went downhill from there.
After being a Pro Bowler in 2007 and 2008, that one play probably cost him from making the Pro Bowl last season. He's still a top-tier long snapper in my book though, and I don't have any concerns about him entering the season.
Job Security: A+
Player Quality: A+
Final Roster Odds: 100%
Note: For these next few sections, rather than mini-profiles, it will be general notes on the position.
Kick Returner / Punt Returner
After three kick return touchdowns and one punt return touchdown last season, it will be difficult for Joshua Cribbs to top last year's effort. He doesn't really need to put touchdowns on the board to make an impact though -- the Browns had tremendous starting field position last year because of Cribbs. If Cribbs wasn't returning the ball to the 45-yard line, then teams were purposely kicking the ball out of bounds, allowing the offense to start at the 40.
With Syndric Steptoe and Gerard Lawson on the training camp roster, they are the top two candidates to see reps at the return positions. I think Jerome Harrison and Brian Robiskie received some reps there last season too, but I'd prefer to see both of them just stick with running back and wide receiver in camp, respectively.
In training camp and the preseason, this will probably be the team's biggest hole on special teams. The staff has hinted that they would like to reduce the number of times they use Cribbs as a gunner on special teams, probably so he can be more of a contributor on offense. Cribbs would fill in a gunner position if it's a tight game in the second half and the Browns need a sure stop.
I was really impressive with LB Blake Costanzo last year. He was touted as a special teams specialist coming into the season, and he delivered with 14 tackles on the season, 2 forced fumbles, and 3 fumbles recovered. When you have someone who can knock the ball loose and recover it the way he did on special teams, I don't see how you cut him off the roster.
I think the team is also intrigued by the play of S/WR Ray Ventrone on special teams. After joining the team part-way into the season, he was third on the team with 12 special teams tackles. Veteran S Nick Sorensen was second on the team with 13 special teams tackles. I thought LB Kaluka Maiava would see a bit more special teams action last year, but he still recorded four tackles and forced a fumble in coverage.
Another key contributor on special teams this year could be LB Chris Gocong, who averaged about 10 special teams tackles per season as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Special Teams Position Quality (Overall): A-
This coming week, we'll be taking a look at a position that was drastically revamped over the offseason: the secondary. The following week, we'll take a look at our offensive line along with some season predictions. After that, guess what? Cleveland Browns training camp begins! Yay!