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Cleveland Browns Training Camp 2020: Special Teams Preview (Part 2)

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A look at the Browns’ return game and coverage units.

Baltimore Ravens v Cleveland Browns Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

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.


Pittsburgh Steelers v Cleveland Browns Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Kick Returner

In 2019, the Browns featured a mix of RB Dontrell Hilliard, CB Tavierre Thomas, RB D’Ernest Johnson, and WR Taywan Taylor at kick return. Here is how each of them performed:

  • Hilliard: 17 returns, 421 yards (24.8 avg).
  • Thomas: 10 returns, 204 yards (20.4 avg).
  • Johnson: 5 returns, 129 yards (25.8 avg).
  • Taylor: 3 returns, 53 yards (17.7 avg).

Each of those players are still with the team. These days, it’s hard to be a good kick returner because the kickoff rules. The thing I look for more in a kick returner is their situational awareness. Do they know to let the ball go for a touchback when it’s kicked deep, unless it’s the final few seconds of the half?

Cleveland signed WR JoJo Natson this offseason as one of their top candidates to return kickoffs and punts. In 2019, Natson had 13 kick returns for 289 yards (22.2 yards per return) for the Rams.


Chicago Bears v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

Punt Returner

The Browns’ primary punt returner in 2019 was Dontrell Hilliard, who had 15 returns for 107 yards (7.1 yards per return). The team also gave Jarvis Landry some opportunities; he had 5 returns for 53 yards (10.6 yards per return).

As mentioned earlier, Natson is a candidate to return punts. Basically, if he makes the roster, you know he’s the guy. Last year with the Rams, Natson had 19 returns for 149 yards (7.8 yards per return). The year before in 2018, he had 26 returns for 280 yards (10.8 yards per return).

Another candidate to return punts is rookie WR Donovan Peoples-Jones. He averaged 8.7 yards per return on punts at Michigan, with two punt return touchdowns in three years. If Cleveland went with Peoples-Jones at punt returner, it would eliminate the need for Natson, and Cleveland could use one of last year’s guys at kick return.


Cleveland Browns v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Coverage Units

The top tacklers on special teams for the Browns last year were WR KhaDarel Hodge (10 tackles, 2 assists), RB Dontell Hilliard (7 tackles, 3 assists), S Sheldrick Redwine (5 tacles, 2 assists), RB D’Ernest Johnson (5 tackles, 2 assists), CB Tavierre Thomas (4 tackles, 5 assists), and LB Tae Davis (4 tackles, 2 assists).

The Browns’ coverage units were solid, and special teams coordinator Mike Priefer clearly displayed his coaching chops. Of the Browns’ tacklers listed above, Thomas has been one of the top special teams players in the entire NFL over the past two years and figures to have the best chance to return in that role. Hodge was a solid gunner last year and led the team in tackles, but if WR Donovan Peoples-Jones showcases himself well as a rookie, that could put his roster spot in jeopardy. If S J.T. Hassell is able to make the roster as the final defensive back, I would look for him to have a big role on special teams too.

Other players like A.J. Green will also undoubtedly need special teams to try to showcase their talents, but as I’ve said in many of these previews, it becomes more difficult in a pandemic world with no preseason games. If you don’t want to risk a decline in coverage, go with the sure bets like Hodge and Thomas.


Poll

Who should be the Browns’ kick returner in 2020?

This poll is closed

  • 21%
    Dontrell Hilliard
    (30 votes)
  • 11%
    D’Ernest Johnson
    (16 votes)
  • 48%
    JoJo Natson
    (68 votes)
  • 3%
    Tavierre Thomas
    (5 votes)
  • 0%
    Taywan Taylor
    (1 vote)
  • 13%
    Other
    (19 votes)
139 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Who should be the Browns’ punt returner in 2020?

This poll is closed

  • 4%
    Dontrell Hilliard
    (6 votes)
  • 0%
    Jarvis Landry
    (1 vote)
  • 25%
    JoJo Natson
    (32 votes)
  • 68%
    Donovan Peoples-Jones
    (85 votes)
  • 0%
    Other
    (0 votes)
124 votes total Vote Now