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Special teams upgrades: P Corey Bojorquez

This unit needed a lot of infusion of better talent

Green Bay Packers vs Detroit Lions Photo by Amy Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Browns have one of the best Special Teams coaches in the league in Mike Priefer. But his unit last year was pretty dismal. Before the year concluded punter Jamie Gillan was gone, kick returner JoJo Natson was on IR for most of the season, kicker Chase McLaughlin began the year red hot and ended up last in field goal completion percentage while assistant Special Teams coach Doug Colman was let go.

With Gillan gone, the club brought in several free agent punters for a tryout and settled on 19-year veteran Dustin Colquitt who played just five games.

GM Andrew Berry knew that Colquitt wasn’t the long-term answer, and sought out a viable replacement.

The NFL draft in April was in sight and it was assumed Cleveland would address the position at some point through this venue. Matt Araiza of San Diego State, Penn State’s Jordan Stout and Ryan Stonehouse from Colorado State were the best available punters and would certainly be drafted in the lower rounds. The Browns had a pick in each of the lower three rounds plus an extra slot in Round 7.

With the draft creeping up, instead of waiting for the draft, Berry signed Corey Bojorquez (6’-0”, 217 pounds) from the Green Bay Packers as an unrestricted free agent.

NFL: DEC 19 Packers at Ravens Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Bojorquez (pronounced buh-hor-kez) has tremendous leg strength which is crucial for punters who attempt to get the ball downfield in FirstEnergy Stadium on days when the wind swirls off Lake Erie especially coming from the southwest. He is right handed but left-footed. This means his punts spin counterclockwise so the ball approaches the kick returner with an atypical spin which is much more difficult to catch cleanly.

However, the Packers didn’t want to lose him. To be factual, they wanted him. They needed him. So, what happened instead?

Beginnings

Bojorquez was raised in Lakewood, California nestled between Anaheim and busy Los Angeles. He attended Mayfair High School as the oldest of four children.

A soccer star since he was a little kid, he also kicked and punted for the school’s football team beginning his junior year. He averaged 46.5 yards per punt as a senior with a long of 80-yards. No, not a misprint. In his junior year he had booted one for 67-yards.

Bojorquez was named Second Team All-Suburban League as a senior, Second Team All-State plus selected to the All-League Academic Team.

“I’d just sit there and say, ‘Holy smokes,’ ” said Mike Fitch, his football coach at Mayfair High School. “His hangtime was incredible. Not only would he kick it a mile, but he would also get them up over the eucalyptus trees.”

Eucalyptus trees can grow more than 100-feet tall.

This natural punter would spend hours and hours kicking one football down his street, fetch it and then kick it back again. The $15 football was one his grandmother had gifted to him. Cars, mailboxes, bushes, tree limbs and a swimming pool all have a story to tell about that football.

He attended the Chris Sailer Kicking Camp in both his senior and junior years and also Coach Zauner’s Kicking Camp. These resources were responsible for escalating his kicking height and hang time.

As a senior, he averaged 46.45 yards per punt and was ranked 16th in the nation.

As a California kid, naturally he wanted to go to USC, UCLA or Stanford. With all the accolades and the work spent at kicking camps, few colleges noticed. He then made a verbal commitment as a walk-on to in-state Sacramento State, but soon changed his mind. More experience was what he believed he needed.

Cerritos College, a community college program, has surprisingly had quite a few NFL players get their seasoning there first before moving on to larger programs. Whether it is grades that need to be improved, or lack of athletic scholarships, this school has been a successful stop for 53 NFL players including two Hall of Famers.

Plus Cerritos was cheaper than Sacramento State and if he was going to have to pay for college while playing, he might as well pay the least.

For his freshman year, he had a 37.6 average. In 2015 as a sophomore, Bojorquez would lead the JUCO national rankings in gross average with a 43.8 average on 44 punts. For his efforts he was named First Team All-State and First Team All-Conference.

At the time, there wasn’t a lot of offers nationwide going to strictly specialists. From there, he had offers to play at Indiana State, New Mexico and Concordia University in Montreal. He accepted the New Mexico offer because it was closer to home.

It was at New Mexico that Bojoquez began to fine tune his accuracy and learned how to angle kicks toward the sideline. He also learned how to be consistent with kicks and not just boom one and then short-leg the next. Against Colorado in his junior year, he uncorked an 80-yarder.

In his senior year, he had a very good season and was named Honorable Mention All-American, First Team All-Mountain West Conference plus made the Mountain West All-Academic Team. He set a single season school record in gross punting average of 47.3 yards plus was ranked fourth in the nation.

The 2018 NFL draft came and went

Despite being ranked the fourth best punter in all of college football, Bojoquez wasn’t drafted. He ultimately became the Buffalo Bills starting punter by journey of the New England Patriots.

NFL: New England Patriots at Carolina Panthers Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

See, the Patriots signed him as an undrafted free agent shortly after the draft as head coach Bill Belichick covets left-footed punters. However, Belichick did not allow him to punt in a single pre-season game and planned to waive him, then sign him to their practice squad. At halftime during the fourth exhibition game, he was allowed to go through halftime warmups with incumbent Ryan Allen. During that session, Bojoquez boomed several kicks that wowed the crowd.

It just so happens that in attendance of that game was a Bills’ scout who had taken note of Bojoquez’s warm-ups. Buffalo then claimed him off waivers. He was named the starting punter in Week 1 after cutting veteran Colton Schmidt.

Bojoquez’s agent Brooks Henderson recalled the transaction:

“By not playing him, it’s almost like they grew a little mystique about him. And the Bills obviously stepped up and claimed him. I don’t know how much they had seen him punt other than that halftime. I assume somebody scouted him while he was in college, but I don’t recall speaking to the Bills about him before the draft that year.”

In 2018 with Buffalo, he finished 18th in the league in average per kick at 45.1 yards. He was 22nd in two other categories: kicks inside the 20 (22) and touchbacks (4). He also had one blocked punt.

Buffalo was his home for three seasons. In 2019 he was ranked 40th in the league with a 42.4 average per kick. The next season he led the NFL with a 50.8 average. During this season he netted a 74-yard punt against Tennessee.

Bojoquez parlayed that success into a new contract with the Los Angeles Rams. The new deal meant going home.

Green Bay by way of LA

The Los Angeles Rams had a great punter already on the roster named Johnny Hekker when Bojoquez arrived. Hekker had been named to four Pro Bowls and was First Team All-Pro four times and Second Team All-Pro twice.

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Denver Broncos Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

So, why sign Bojoquez? The same reason as to why all great players are shipped off in their prime: money. Hekker was poised to become the highest-paid punter in the league at a time when the Rams were having cap issues.

Hekker was due a big payday in 2021 and the Rams did not seem to want to pay him despite all his accolades. Hekker owned the NFL’s highest net average punting yards in a single season record of 44.23 yards in 2013. This was now 2021 and Los Angeles was asking “what have you done for me lately?” since his last hardware achievement was garnered back in 2018.

Bojoquez saw it as a way to play for his childhood team and be close to home. The Rams wanted a punting battle, and that is exactly what they got. In fact, it was the biggest storyline in training camp.

Hekker ended up on the COVID list for two preseason games. In the finale against Denver, Bojoquez had five punt attempts with two being downed on their opponent’s one-yard line, had a 55.4 yard per kick average, plus he boomed a 67 and a 70-yard punt.

“Corey came out here and did an excellent job,” Rams head coach Sean McVay said after the 17-12 loss to the Broncos. “Really pleased with him. He had a good look in his eye and I thought he did an excellent job tonight.”

If Los Angeles was to part ways with Hekker, they would save $3.75 million. The final cutdown day was the following Tuesday. With the writing on the wall, Hekker then agreed to re-negotiate his contract and take an in-house discount.

What followed was Bojoquez, who clearly won the punting battle in LA, was traded to the Green Bay Packers along with a seventh round draft pick in exchange for a sixth round pick going to the Rams who went on to win the Super Bowl. His salary was $920,000.

With Green Bay, Bojoquez finished ranked 16th with a 46.5 per kick average with zero blocked kicks and 18 punts inside the 20. Hekker ended up ranked 32nd and in March of 2022, Los Angeles waived him and therefore saved $2 million.

Bojorquez was a free agent with the Packers and the assumption would be that he would re-sign and was given an offer (although it was low), but the franchise just didn’t have the cap space for a veteran punter that in all likelihood should be paid in the neighborhood of $1.035 million a year.

Another theory was that Bojoquez could seek out the Rams and again return to his roots which was a stone’s throw from SoFi Stadium. However, on April 4 Cleveland inked him to a two-year deal for $1.5 million per year including a $250,000 signing bonus and a guarantee of $1.25 million each season.

Needs on Special Teams

There were several aspects of last season’s special teams that were horrid. Kick returner JoJo Natson had been signed but was often injured. This meant that Donovan Peoples-Jones was regulated to punt returns while rookie Demetric Felton or RB D’Ernest Johnson would take kickoff return duties. None of these three were productive. Cleveland had been ranked 21st in the league in kick returns and 27th in punt returns.

This off-season, Berry signed Jakeem Grant of the Chicago Bears as the new return man with a three-year deal worth up to $13.8 million with incentives.

Appearing in 15 games last year, the Two Time Second Team All-Pro kick returner in 2020 and also in 2021 averaged 23.4 yards on 23 returns and 309 yards on 26 punt returns. This included a 97-yard touchdown return in the Bears’ Week 14 loss to the Packers.

Kicker was another concern as was the punter position. This was a team that was near the top in going for it on fourth down for a reason. Berry has since drafted Cade York of LSU in the fourth round, largely regarded as this year’s best college kicker.

And Bojoquez has been signed as this year’s punter. He becomes the second punter on Cleveland’s roster as the club also added former Carolina Panthers’ punter Joseph Charlton earlier in the off-season on a reserves/futures deal.

Couple this with one of the league’s best longsnappers in Charley Hughlett, and suddenly the ST unit is looking a whole lot better.

By the way, Bojorquez is an ordained minister.

Bojorquez has kicked the two longest punts in the NFL the last two seasons. He had a 72-yard punt in 2020 and an 82-yard punt in 2021. He also led the NFL with an average of 50.8 yards per punt in 2020.

An identifiable issue with his punting, and as a holder?

Now, here is an issue with Bojorquez that nobody seems to be talking about. His holder duties.

He had a lot of issues holding for Packers kicker Mason Crosby during the cold weather months while in Green Bay. In fact, he was horrible. Crosby’s field goal completion percentage dropped from 100% for the 2021 season, to 73.5% with Bojorquez as his holder.

NFL: DEC 19 Packers at Ravens Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Before Green Bay he was the punter in Buffalo. The kicker when he arrived was Stephen Hauschka. In 2017, Hauschka had an 87.9 completion percentage. The following year with Bojorquez as his holder that dropped to 78.6% for two consecutive years.

That in itself may be a very huge problem.

Don’t get this wrong: Bojorquez has a big leg. He can punt high and long – when the weather is warmer than 30 degrees. His punting in cold weather is another story.

That is why in the first portion of last year while with the Packers he was in line to have the greatest punt year in Green Bay history. Then, it became cold and the second half of the year he really tapered off.

Which makes sense is if he had signed to a club such as Tampa Bay where he would kick 8-9 home games a year in South Florida, three games against division foes Atlanta, New Orleans and Carolina, and a minimal amount of cold weather stadiums a season.

But sign with Cleveland? Kick in Cleveland near Lake Erie, much less Cincinnati, Baltimore and mega-chilly Pittsburgh? Each one is an outdoor venue.

Bojorquez has a knack of beginning the year strong but he becomes erratic once the winter season rolls along. Throw in his shaky holding abilities and it’s going to be either a hit or miss for the new guy.

The Browns have had the “Scottish Hammer” and now possess the “Bojo Bomb.”