The thought process around the league is that Special Teams coach Mike Priefer is one of the NFL’s best. Doug Colman was his assistant, now handled by Stephen Bravo-Brown.
For those unaware, Special Teams are many different units. There is the kickoff team, punt team, kickoff return team, field goal team, field goal block team, punt return team, a hands team, a longsnapper position, a punter, a kicker, and a holder. Whew.
And all of this is practiced in practice sessions.
Many a game has been won or lost in some method relating to Special Teams. You can lose a game just by calling the wrong direction to move the offense to which the punter has to kick into a stiff wind. Or miss a field goal for inclement weather conditions.
All of the parts and pieces to Special Teams must be clicking in order for these units to be successful. For example, on a field goal or point after attempt, it is basically nine offensive players against 11 defenders. The kicker and holder do not block anyone whereas the defense can send all 11 guys if they so choose.
Free agency starts officially tomorrow March 16. Will there be a punter or a kicker signed?
Last year, the Browns Special Teams units were a mixed bag. The franchise finished the 2021 season ranked 18th in offensive efficiency, 12th in defense and 24th in Special Teams. Where does this group stand? What moves should be made?
Defense: Punt coverage
The punt coverage group was outstanding each week. Excellent downfield tackling was attributed to Elijah Lee, Sione Takitaki, Richard LeCounte, Stephen Carlson, D’Ernest Johnson, M.J. Stewart, Tony Fields and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. Final stats were 30 returns for 257 yards and a 8.57 per return average with zero touchdowns allowed.
Defense: Kickoff coverage
Same could be said for the most part for the kickoff coverage squad who essentially were the same dudes. Cleveland finished seventh in the league with a 19.72 yards per return. Final numbers were 39 returns for 791 yards with zero touchdowns allowed.
And as good as these two kick coverage teams were in 2021, the cast of characters changes every year. Rookies are a huge ingredient so each year some new young guys are added. Plus, even some Special Team demons aren’t kept despite their value on this unit. Remember Tavierre Thomas? The cornerback was barely used in his actual position, but on coverage teams his Number 20 was seen constantly making a tackle. Yet, he was allowed to test the free agent market and signed with the Houston Texans where he was AFC Defensive Player of the Week one game.
Offense: Kickoff return
Nothing fancy to report here. Where is Josh Cribbs when you need him? Cleveland landed bottom third in stats squarely at Number 21. 20.70 yard average isn’t even getting the ball back to the 25. The 40 kickoff returns ranks the fifth most which means the defense gave up a lot of points. 828 yards gained for a 48.7 yards per game average.
Return man Ja’Marcus Bradley actually led all Cleveland kick return specialists with a 24.5 average and netted 49 total yards on two returns and ranked 27th. D’Ernest Johnson was up next at Number 42 with his 23.2 average on six returns for 139 yards. Other returners were M.J. Stewart (1 return). Andy Janovich (2) and Demetric Felton (9).
What this unit needs is a quick, shifty athlete who found the end zone more than once in college. Felton may indeed be it as he had 26 returns at UCLA for 611 yards with a 23.5 yards per return average and scored once.
And as much speed as WR Anthony Schwartz possesses, it is a quandary as to why he isn’t being groomed for the kickoff return man. He does run a 4.27 in the 40 and was a mega track star. He still holds a world record in the Under-18 100 meters. He was also an Olympics trainee and participated in the World U-20 Championships. Perhaps his 186 pound frame cannot take the hits?
Offense: Punt return
The Browns did not scare anybody when the ball was returned off of a punt. Not one bit.
Donovan Peoples-Jones ranked 42 in the league in punt returns with a paltry 7.9 yards per return. His 95 total yards was slotted at Number 33. Felton ranked 53rd with 32 returns for 227 yards and a 7.1 average.
Felton was a very good returner in college and was thought to be the answer to kickoff and punt returns with his electric style of running. However, the Browns rarely got any good field position and did not score any points off either of these two groups.
There were many issues here. Let’s start with the punters. Yes, more than one.
Jamie Gillan began the season as the club’s punter. He was waived after the Week 12 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. At the time of his release, he was the league’s 26th best - or worst - punter. His final stats with the Browns was a 43.9 average and 42 punts for 1,660 net yards. His 15 punts inside the 20 ranked 30th.
Gillan will always be remembered for his fumble gaff in the third quarter of the opening loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. This set up the Chiefs with a first down on the Browns 11 and three plays later scored a touchdown. Cleveland lost by four points. He struggled to get more distance on his kicks that need it while struggling to land punts softly to allow them to be downed on the shorter ones.
Gillan’s replacement was the 17-year veteran Dustin Colquitt. He is an unrestricted free agent which means he can sign with another club at any time. However, on the Browns depth chart he is listed as the starting punter.
Colquitt played five games with a 41.5 average on 25 punts. Just seems odd to ax a punter just for the next guy to come in and have worse statistics.
Obviously, Colquitt is not the answer.
Charley Hughlett is considered one of the league’s best although he has never been named to the Pro Bowl. He is also very good at getting downfield and involved in the tackle.
Hughlett was undrafted coming out of UCF and bounced from several team’s practice squads before finding a place on the Chiefs practice squad. He then signed with Cleveland to compete with veteran Christian Yount who had signed a five-year extension just two years earlier.
As it turned out, the competition didn’t even make it to training camp as the club waived Yount in May of 2015 as the younger Hughlett was named the starter. Yount had botched several snaps the year before and the coaching staff liked what they saw in Hughlett. Now, he is entering his eighth season with the Browns. He has played in 113 consecutive games and is 31 years old.
Field goal/PAT unit
This is a very important group. Field goals and PATs make points so it is important to have a guy who is dependable and move the scoreboard forward.
In recent years, the Browns have attempted to have some kind of consistency at the kicker position and have not succeeded since the days of Phil Dawson and Don Cockroft.
And it wasn’t that the Browns weren’t trying to find the long-term answer. Austin Siebert was drafted in the fifth round of the 2019 draft. Zane Gonzalez was taken in the seventh round of the 2017 NFL draft. Both players didn’t even last two full seasons.
Cody Parkey was the starter in 2020 in his second stint with the franchise. The Browns signed Chase McLaughlin when Parkey was place on IR. Just a few earlier on the practice squad was Matt McCrane which was expected to compete with Parkey for the starting kicker in 2020 yet was surprisingly waived before training camp. Now, it was McLaughlin all by himself.
Cleveland was McLaughlin’s ninth team. At first, he was lights out on field goals. He made his first field goal, a 30-yarder, in Week 2 in a 31-21 win over the Houston Texans plus was 4-4 in PAT attempts.
McLaughlin’s coming out party was in Week 3 against the Chicago Bears, a 26-6 win. He nailed four of four field goal attempts including a 57-yarder plus was 2-2 in PATs which meant he was responsible for over half the points. This performance was followed by going 2-2 on field goals in a 14-7 win over Minnesota. One of those kicks was from 53-yards.
Suddenly the Browns were 3-1-0 and they realized they had a kicker.
Going into Week 7 against Denver, he was a perfect 9-9 on field goals and 15-15 on PATs. He missed his first field goal in the Denver game. From that point on, McLaughlin missed one field goal in five games. He finished the season 15-21 on field goals and 36-37 on extra points.
His final ranking was 30th. His 75% of kicks made placed him 40th. This was behind both Siebert (Lions) and Gonzalez (Panthers) if you are keeping score at home. McLaughlin is a restricted free agent.
On January 11 Cleveland signed K Chris Blewitt to a reserves/futures contract who spent time on the practice squad in 2021.
The Browns must improve this group, that is pretty obvious. Colman was let go because his two responsibilities were the punter and kicker. And both failed. To top it off, finishing in 24th place is not going to cut it going forward. Isn’t Priefer one of the league’s best? If so, why the low ranking?
#Browns finish the year ranked 18th in offensive efficiency, 12th in defense and 24th in special teams— Jake Trotter (@Jake_Trotter) January 10, 2022
Heading into 2021, Priefer discussed that both the kick and punt coverage teams must improve. That happened and without any touchdowns allowed.
But Colman was the guy in charge of improving kicking and punting. The Steelers blocked a punt. Gillan’s fumble and regression. McLaughlin began the golden boy and then began missing a kick a game.
You have to be sharp in all aspects to win big games. Cleveland changed punters midseason and McLaughlin seemingly remained the kicker by default. A special teams coach can only make a kicker or punter that much better when the mechanics are all worked out.
The Special Teams units just never looked confident and settled for most of the 2021 season.
What should be done? As far as punt and kickoff returns, there will be some new faces in training camp that will be added to these units. Most will be rookies just like LeCounte and Fields did last year.
The Cincinnati Bengals showed the entire NFL that a dependable kicker is crucial. And that it is okay to draft one sooner than the final two rounds or wait until the draft has concluded before trying to sign a new kid. The Bengals took Evan McPherson in the fifth round and was the only kicker drafted. He became a scoring machine and was 14-14 in the post-season.
So perhaps the Browns should draft a kicker or a punter, or both.
At punter, the one name that surfaces is Matt Araiza (6’-2”, 200 pounds) of San Diego State. He is so good he is ranked #159 among all draft prospects. Araiza is a helluva a football player and has been the “Punt God.” He is also a kickoff specialist.
Araiza won the Ray Guy Award as the nation’s best punter. He was First Team All-Mountain West, the MWC Special Teams Player of the Year and a Unanimous All-American. In two consecutive games, he had an 86-yard punt and then an 81-yarder.
As a two-year starter, Araiza had 84 punts for a 51.1 average. He was the Number 1 ranked punter in college football and had the most punting yards with 4,044. He was also San Diego State’s kicker and went 18-28 in field goals along with a perfect 45-45 in PATs his senior year. His final field goal percentage for three seasons was 73.5%.
Which means he is a reliable backup kicker. But punter is where he shines.
“Cannon” is what should best describe Araiza’s leg. He currently holds the NCAA record for punting average in a season (51.19), punts over 50-yards (39) and punts over 60-yards (18) for the former soccer star. He is known as one of the greatest punters in college football history.
And he won’t come cheap. The central value of punts is how they affect the opponent’s starting field position — the farther an offense starts from the end zone, the fewer points they’ll score on average.
Another aspect of Araiza’s game is his kickoff abilities. 78% of his kickoffs were never returned. He is a field possession weapon.
The fifth round is about right for Azaira to be selected. If the Browns want him, they may want to take him in the fourth especially since they shipped off their fifth round pick in the Amari Cooper trade. Draft site DeepFriedDraft.com has him going in Round 3.
If the Browns are entertaining bringing in a punter during free agency, Colquitt was a free agent when he signed and that was just meh.
As far as kicker, a reliable guy can become the difference between winning or losing in several games during the year. Clubs will sometimes avoid using even a late round pick on a top kicker on another player who ends up on the waiver wire.
The top kickers available in the draft are Gabe Brkic of Oklahoma, LSU’s Cade York and Parker White from South Carolina.
Brkic is an Ohio native having grown up in Chardon. He was named Second Team All-Big 12. As a three-year starter he converted 57 of 69 field attempts for a completion 82.6%. He was 159-160 on PATs. He was 10-14 in kicks over 50-yards.
York is considered by many as the best kicker in this class. He made 15-19 kicks of 50 yards or more and has incredible leg strength. He booted a school-record 57-yard field goal last year against Florida in dense fog. One item of caution: York does not kickoff. His career stats are 54-66 in field goal attempts as a three-year starter, 164-168 PATs and an 83.3% field goal completion ratio.
White isn’t a shrimp of a man like a lot of kickers. He stands 6’-5” and weighs 205. He was a soccer star and became South Carolina’s starter for four years. His best season was his senior year in which he converted 17-19 for an 89.5% accuracy rate with a perfect 30-30 on extra points. For his career, he attempted 101 field goals and made 73 for an average of 72.3%. White was 152-154j on PATs and scored 371 points.
If the Browns want to bring in a veteran, Atlanta’s Younghoe Koo is once again a free agent. Koo is the only kicker who has converted over 93% of field goals in the past two seasons.
After Koo it is Matt Gay of the Los Angeles Rams, New England’s Nick Folk and Joey Slye of Washington.