In Part 2 of our special teams training camp preview for the Cleveland Browns, we look at the return game positions and some options for the coverage units.
In 2016, the Browns once again played musical chairs at the kick return position, as they went between four different options: RB George Atkinson, S Tracy Howard, WR Ricardo Louis, and WR Mario Alford. Of the four options, only Howard is no longer with the team. Therefore, let’s take a look at how the other three players performed:
- Atkinson: 8 returns, 137 yards (17.1 avg).
- Louis: 9 returns, 164 yards (18.2 avg).
- Alford: 8 returns, 190 yards (23.8 avg).
Alford’s production was the best, and it came in the final three games. Statistically, he did get the advantage of playing at the end of the year, when there are more returnable kicks due to the weather. However, he had a very natural-looking comfort as a return man. He should be the favorite to take on that job in 2017.
Other players who could see action as the kick returner are RB Duke Johnson, WR Josh Boyce, and S Jabrill Peppers. The player expected to be the biggest threat to Alford’s job is Peppers, the team’s first-round pick. I often feel that teams won’t want to risk their first-round talent on special teams, but Peppers could be a special case where the Browns feel his electric playmaking ability is a big reason they took him in the first round. Josh Cribbs is excited by what he can bring to that position too. In college, Peppers had 18 kick returns for 483 yards (26.8 avg).
Who was the Browns' primary punt returner in 2016? I completely forgot that it was RB Duke Johnson; I was surprised when I saw he led the team with 17 returns for 112 yards (6.6 avg). The Browns used CB Tramon Williams as the “safe” fair catch returner; he had 1 return for 0 yards and 4 fair catches. CB Joe Haden also had 2 returns for 18 yards (9.0 avg).
When WR Mario Alford joined the Browns, he also took over punt returns. On 8 returns, he had 68 yards (8.5 avg). Not bad. This year’s competition should come down to a three-person competition between Johnson, Alford, and SS Jabrill Peppers. Here is what special teams coordinator Chris Tabor said about Peppers after minicamp in June as a return man:
“The way [Peppers is] built, he kind of reminds me a little bit in the Cribbsy mold. He has some thickness to him. If you look at our past returners, even when I was in Chicago with Devin [Hester], Devin was a little slighter guy. Travis [Benjamin] was a really slight guy. [Peppers is] a mix of more of a Cribbsy and can go north-south. But I thought he had good vision coming out, and you could see it on a lot of plays where he could just create on his own, and I think those are good traits in a returner.”
Peppers had gotten work as both a kick and punt returner during minicamp. He returned more punts in college — 39 punt returns for 510 yards (13.1 avg) and 1 touchdown. If the Browns don’t mind the extra roster spot on Alford, I could see them having Alford on kickoffs and Peppers on punts...but for that to happen, Alford would also need to show some skills as a gunner or emergency wide receiver.
Forgot in all of this talk is WR Corey Coleman. He was a strong candidate to be the team’s punt returner in 2016, although most fans actually voted that they did not want him to be the team’s primary punt returner (so he could focus on wide receiver instead). Given his injury issues, I’d be surprised if the team tried to force punt returning on him again as he needs to do plenty of catch-up at wide receiver.
The top three players in special teams tackles for the Browns last year were LB Joe Schobert (12), WR Ricardo Louis (7), and MLB Dominique Alexander (7). Other contributors included S Ibraheim Campbell, OLB Christian Kirksey, and LS Charley Hughlett with 5 each, and then a bunch of players with fewer tackles than that. Credit Hughlett for having as many tackles as he did, but your long snapper should not be among the team-leaders in special teams tackles.
The team largely used Louis and S Tracy Howard as gunners in 2016. That’s a role that Louis is likely to retain due to his straight-line speed, but the Browns will be in search for someone opposite him because Howard is gone. The team will try out many of their young defensive backs as gunners, so it’s impossible at this point in time to predict which one will stick in that role. One player to keep an eye on for a gunner role is WR James Wright, who Hue Jackson knows from Cincinnati. He has experience as a gunner/jammer. I also said earlier that I’d like to see what WR Mario Alford can do as a gunner, although he’s pretty under-sized for that role at 5-8, 177 lbs.
Even though MLB Tank Carder only had 3 special teams tackles last year, expect him to return as the leader of special teams. Some of the younger linebackers, like MLB Kenneth Olugbode, will be trying to make a mark on special teams to unseat him. People try every year, but Carder has won out every time.
Here are your poll questions for Part 2:
Who will be the Browns’ primary kick returner to begin the year?
This poll is closed
RB George Atkinson
WR Ricardo Louis
WR Mario Alford
SS Jabrill Peppers
Who will be the Browns’ primary punt returner to begin the year?
This poll is closed
RB Duke Johnson
WR Mario Alford
WR Corey Coleman
SS Jabrill Peppers