The Cleveland Browns made a minor splash when they signed kick returner JoJo Natson in free agency this offseason.
Natson spent the past two seasons with the Los Angeles Rams, where he averaged a 22.2 yards per kickoff return and 7.7 yards per punt return in 2019. In three seasons in the league, he has proven to be a reliable - if not overly dynamic - returner, albeit in somewhat limited duty as he has just 61 career punt returns and 35 career kickoff returns.
It appeared at the time that Natson would be able to claim a spot on special teams as the primary return man, especially given how poorly the Browns performed last season in the return game by finished 20th in the league on kickoff returns and 16th on punt returns.
That is, until the Browns selected wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones in the sixth round of the 2020 NFL Draft.
While primarily a wide receiver, Peoples-Jones is also a threat as a punt returner as he was a third-team All-Big Ten selection as a punt returner in 2018 and 2019, which could prove problematic for Natson’s chances at making the roster.
The Browns will likely not have a consistent need for a traditional third wide receiver under head coach Kevin Stefanski, who likes to use a lot of personnel groupings with two (or more) tight ends. Add in running back Kareem Hunt’s ability as a pass catcher, and unless an injury strikes wide receiver Jarvis Landry or Odell Beckham Jr., there may not be many targets available at the position.
That is where Donovan-Jones’ versatility comes into play, as he has a distinct edge over Natson as a wide receiver, given that Natson has only two career catches and has not been targeted with a pass since 2017.
Changes across the NFL the past few seasons have worked to de-emphasize the importance of the return game. Now, as long as you have a pair reliable hands to catch a punt and a returner who is smart enough to down a kickoff rather than try to run it out of the endzone, teams are pretty well set.
So the idea of the Browns holding a roster spot for a potentially one-dimensional player like Natson may be a stretch.
Of course, special teams coordinator Mike Priefer might view the situation a little bit differently as he talked up Natson’s return game on Thursday, according to clevelandbrowns.com:
“I am very happy he is here. (JoJo) has exceptional quickness. He catches punts and kickoffs very, very well. I studied him and I knew a little bit about him from the last few years in the league, but you do not get as many reps at seeing him catch the ball and how he tracks the ball. He is very, very good at that, which obviously bodes well for him and for us. His vision is good.
“We are working on some different things with him to help him be successful more downfield, but he is going to make that first guy miss more than not, and that is the exciting thing about him.”
Natson also got name checked by Stefanski, who said the coaching staff is “looking forward” to using Natson’s particular set of skills.
The Browns have also been giving Natson some reps at wide receiver, which if he can show that he can offer something in the receiving game if called upon would certainly help his chances at securing a roster spot.
For his part, Natson told clevelandbrowns.com that he is embracing the opportunity to show off his receiving skills:
“A bit surprised, but I just try and stay on top of my game and help the team in any way I could. If someone was to go down and coach calls my number, my job is to be ready and fill in as best as I could. I just look at it as coach giving me an opportunity to show what I can do as a receiver. I am just taking that one day at a time and learning from the guys in the room. That is one of my biggest things, learning from those guys, O (WR Odell Beckham Jr.) and Juice (WR Jarvis Landry) and just trying to pick their brains and watch their game.
“With my speed, I feel like I can take the top off the defense. Like I said, I am just working day by day and just trying to get better every day. Hopefully, that opportunity presents itself, but until then, I am just studying my playbook and learning from the guys that are in front of me.”
There may not be that many surprises as the Browns make their initial roster cuts to get down to a maximum of 53 players by 4 p.m. today.
One position battle to keep an eye on, however, is the return position, where the Browns will need to decide if Natson can bring enough to the field as a returner to earn a roster spot, or if they are more comfortable that Peoples-Jones can fill the need while also being able to play wide receiver.