Everywhere you go, Cleveland Browns’ fans have a lot of hope for a spectacular upcoming 2019 season.
The promise of a division title looms; lots of ink has been dedicated to a possible Super Bowl run; various trades have made the roster more appealing; a new head coach was hired, along with new offensive and defensive coordinators; and the defense should be impossible to run against.
Even quarterback Baker Mayfield has gone on record to state that the offense should become a Top-5 unit in the NFL this year. Others have said that Mayfield himself will be grouped into the Top-10 of quarterbacks, with hints that everyone should grab him for their fantasy team given the fact that he has wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr, Jarvis Landry, Antonio Callaway and Rashard Higgins, tight end David Njuku, plus a bevy of pass-catching running backs in Nick Chubb, Duke Johnson and eventually Kareem Hunt amongst the lineup.
And on the defensive side of the ball? Start with what should be an impenetrable wall with defensive ends Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon on the outside coupled with defensive tackles Larry Ogunjobi and Sheldon Richardson lurking in the interior, with capable backups such as Chris Smith, Brian Price, Chad Thomas and Trevon Coley. How to shuffle in bodies with this unit will become defensive coordinator Steve Wilks’ dream job.
Good offensive line? Check. Solid defensive backfield? Oh, yeah. Tackling linebackers? Yep. Special Teams? Well ...
Special Teams. This one unit is currently the Achilles’ heel of the Browns. To put it mildly, this unit has its issues. Which part? Well - almost every aspect.
Each season, Rick Gosselin puts out a Special Teams Ranking for every NFL club’s special teams units after the conclusion of the season. His report is well-received, researched intently, and is considered the Bible of special teams play around the NFL. Last year, the Browns were ranked 30th by Gosselin. The year before they were 27th.
With all the firepower the offense should have this year, and for all the key players the club has signed, traded for and drafted, what should be done to help the special teams unit finally become something that will help the Browns each game instead of crippling their efforts? General manager John Dorsey was a special teams standout for the Green Bay Packers as a player, so an emphasis on great special teams play is a personal requirement for a Dorsey-led franchise.
The current kicker that handles extra points, field goals and kickoffs is Greg Joseph. He was signed by the franchise during the season last year when incumbent Zane Gonzalez was cut after only two games. Gonzalez was college football’s record holder with 468 career points scored and had won the Lou Groza Award for the sport’s best kicker when he was selected by the Browns in the seventh round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Gonzalez had an uneventful rookie campaign going 15-of-20 on field goals. In his first two games of 2018 he missed three-of five field goals, two-of-five extra points, had a kick blocked and was subsequently waived.
Joseph was an undrafted free agent with the Miami Dolphins and was a casualty of the final cut down day despite going three-for-three on field goals in the preseason. With the Browns, the rookie then connected on 17-of-20 field goals attempts (one of his misses came from 50-plus yards), and he hit 25-of-29 extra points. At season’s end, he was ranked No. 26 in the league under the kicker statistics.
Dorsey subsequently selected Austin Seibert of Oklahoma in the fifth round of this year’s draft. If you are thinking that the fifth round is kind of high to draft a kicker, you are correct. Just as in fantasy football, the last two rounds are usually where you will find kickers – if at all. A peek at the Top-10 field goal kickers from the 2018 NFL season reveal that only two were drafted.
Seibert earned his stripes at the college level. He broke Gonzalez’s record of most career points with 499 as part of an explosive Oklahoma offensive squad. A four-year starter, he nailed 63-of-79 field goal attempts for a 79.7 percent average; however, the majority of the misses occurred during his freshman and sophomore years. He missed five extra points in 315 attempts with only one miss in his final two seasons. For the 2018 college season, Seibert had the fifth-highest kicking percentage and was third in the nation in points scored.
The Browns also have other kicking options. Another rookie, Jamie Gillan, nicknamed the “Scottish Hammer,” was the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff’s punter, kicker and kickoff specialist. Last year Gillan was 13-of-21 on field goals, which included a long of 52 yards, and was 22-of-23 on extra points. He is also 6-foot-2 and 207 pounds, a former rugby star who enjoys contact on kickoffs, and expects to make many tackles.
And since the discussion is on former soccer and rugby players, Odell Beckham Jr. was a high school soccer star. While with the Giants, he would occasionally go out with the kickers in warmups and hit consistently from 40 yards out on field goal attempts.
In Gosselin’s Special Teams Ranking the Browns were dead last on the list of extra point percentage. The Joseph vs. Siebert competition in this year’s training camp should come down to the final bell.
The Browns have a worthy punter already intact in veteran Britton Colquitt (age 34) who was named second alternate to the Pro Bowl last season. With wanting to invite competition at every position, Dorsey inked Gillan (age 21) to a training camp contract.
After a solid showing at his pro day last month, Gillan was contacted by 20 NFL clubs to sign as an undrafted free agent after the draft was concluded. Both Cleveland and the San Francisco 49ers gave him actual tryouts. He chose the Browns because of two things: special teams coach Mike Priefer, and Colquitt. Gillan knew of Colquitt’s experience, technique and fundamentals and, if nothing else, could train from one of the league’s best while at the same time try to display his job interview to the rest of the NFL coaches if Cleveland does not become his new home. Gillan developed a bond with Coach Priefer.
For comparisons, Gillan averaged 43.4 yards a punt for Arkansas-Pine Bluff, which is a D-1 school. Colquitt averaged 45.4 yards per punt last year and has a 45.5 career average over 10 seasons. Gillan had 27 drops inside the 20-yard line last year while Colquitt dropped 32 of 83 punts inside the 20 in 2018.
Colquitt was ranked No. 6 in the NFL overall punter rankings last season, but was 11th in average per punt. Gillan’s task at beating him out will be a huge mission.
Seibert himself was a good college punter and kicked 179 punts during his four years with a 41.7 average.
This is one area that the Browns need help. Running back Dontrell Hilliard and safety Jabrill Peppers were the return men on kickoffs last year. Hilliard (4.42 40 time) was ranked No. 35 in this area in 2018 with a 24-yard average. Peppers is now a New York Giant.
The kickoff coverage team was not good last year and is a motive for improvement. Last season, it ranked 30th in keeping opponents pinned down. The leftside of this coverage team did a decent job, led by linebacker D’Juan Hines and defensive back Tavierre Thomas, who were all over the field.
The rightside of the kickoff coverage team had plenty of issues - and holes. This lineup consisted predominately of T.J. Carrie, Justin Burris, Xavier Woodson-Luster and Hilliard. Most of the year’s biggest returns were opened on this side of the coverage.
But help was just a draft away. The Browns selected linebacker Sione Takitaki in the third round and he should be an instant improvement. He may become the heir apparent to Joe Schobert as the starting middle linebacker, but it is completely feasible that for now he was drafted specifically to help on special teams.
In the fifth round, the Browns selected Alabama linebacker Mack Wilson and he should instantly be inserted into coverages and is a sure tackler with 4.65 40-time speed, while Round 7 brought into the fold cornerback Donnie Lewis, Jr. (4.55 40 time).
Antonio Callaway is currently the club’s punt returner and has the speed to back it up as evidenced by his 4.41 40 time at the combine. Last year he averaged 12.2 yards per return. Peppers had an 8.8 average which is one reason this category looks so bad.
Cleveland was also tied for last in the rankings in special teams takeaways.
The Browns special teams coordinator in 2018 was Amos Jones. He had been head of special teams for five different colleges, then moved to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals before his one-year stint in Cleveland. Currently, he is still pounding the special teams pavement as the assistant special teams coordinator with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Amos had a good punter with Colquitt while with Cleveland, but little else.
The Browns new special teams coordinator is Mike Priefer, with Doug Colman as the assistant special teams coordinator. Priefer is a special teams guru and worked at this position at two colleges before he was hired by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2002. Priefer has been the head guy in special teams with four NFL clubs and had success with each coaching staff. He was employed by the Minnesota Vikings for eight seasons. Five of those seasons, Priefer’s units were ranked in the Top-10, including a fourth place classification in 2015.
Priefer is a former helicopter pilot for the United States Navy. He had constant contact with the Navy SEALs as their drop off and pickup pilot. His job as an officer then depended upon a focus on the mission; have an objective, accomplish the task and then have pride in one’s self. His service to the Browns will be quite similar. His birthplace is Cleveland, while his father Chuck worked as a special teams coach in the NFL for 16 seasons.
Colman is a former NFL linebacker and was with the Browns for the 2000 season. He has coached at several colleges along with the Houston Texans and Dallas Cowboys as an assistant special teams coach.