The Browns placed a huge focus on improving the special teams this past off-season. GM Andrew Berry has done a terrific job in getting in better players at numerous positions that were supposed to make this unit relevant once again.
A new kicker was taken by drafting LSU’s Cade York. The free agent signing of punter Corey Bojoquez was exciting news. And another key free agent who signed was KR Jakeem Grant formerly of the Chicago Bears.
And now, Grant is hurt. Make that Grant most likely has torn up his knee and could possibly be out for the year.
Last year, the punt return and kickoff returns were horrible. Grant was lightning-in-a-bottle and very shifty. And now, he is gone for the season before it even began?
So, the big question is now: who will be the return man?
Last year the kickoff duties was by committee.
Rookie WR/RB Demetric Felton was drafted because of his versatility. And one important aspect of this versatile athlete was that he was a kickoff specialist.
Felton ran a 4.58 while playing at UCLA and had 26 kickoff returns for 611 yards, one touchdown and a 23.5 per kick average. Not great numbers, but steady.
The NFL punt return leader last year was Kene Nwangwu of the Minnesota Vikings who averaged 32.2 yards per return. So, that is the barometer. But anything over 30 yards per return is pretty good.
Back to Felton. His numbers last year was 19.1 yards per return average on nine kicks with 172 yards while his longest run was 28 yards. Allowing the ball to go for a touchback would make more yardage. At season’s end, Felton ranked 79th in kickoff returns.
With these poor numbers, ST coach Mike Priefer began using different guys back there.
RB D’Ernest Johnson is a good back who doesn’t play much until the two starters, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, are injured. So, he was inserted as a kickoff return man. Johnson had six returns for 139 yards with an average of 23.2 good enough for 42nd in the league.
It made a lot of sense to insert WR Anthony Schwartz as a return man despite he had never done this aspect before in college. Using his World Class 4.27 speed is the reason he was drafted to begin with. The last time Schwartz returned a kickoff was in high school when he had two kicks his senior year for 92 yards and one in his junior campaign for 55 yards. But for the three seasons he played at Auburn, he did not return a single kickoff.
Beginning in Week 5 against the Los Angeles Chargers, the job now belonged to Schwartz. In that game he handled five kickoffs for 109 yards. He held the position for seven weeks until a concussion dropped him from play for four weeks. When he returned in Week 15 against Las Vegas, he was no longer the kickoff returner. At year’s end, Schwartz ranked 57th with 322 yards, a long of 35-yards and an average of 21.5.
WR Ja’Marcus Bradley had the best average than anyone else. His 24.5 average per kickoff return was ranked 27th last year. Mind you, it was only two returns for 49 yards.
Other kickoff returners were DB M.J. Stewart with one return for 20 yards (ranked 69th), FB Andy Janovich one return of 9.5 yards (149th) and CB A.J. Green had one touchback (192nd).
Punt returners were a bit less complicated as only Felton and Donovan Peoples-Jones had any stats.
By Week 5, Felton had lost the kickoff return job to Schwartz but he remained one of the punt returners. His numbers with Cleveland are: 2021 – 32 returns, 227 yards, 0 touchdowns, long of 24-yards and a 7.1 average.
Felton was ranked 54th in the league.
The other punt returner, DPJ, came in the game in Week 4 in 2020 and played his first-ever NFL game against Dallas. His first action was a punt return with 13:28 to play in the first quarter. He had been inactive the first three weeks and took two punts and one kickoff during this game.
DPJ did not return kickoffs while at Michigan, but had limited success as a punt returner. He fielded 89 punts in three seasons for 743 yards, two touchdowns and an 8.3 yards per return average.
His numbers since taking kicks with Cleveland are: 2020 – 18 returns, 77 yards, 0 touchdowns, long of 33-yards, with a 4.3 average; 2021 – 12 returns, 95 yards, 0 touchdowns, long of 20-yards, a 7.9 average.
DPJ was ranked 44th in the league.
As you can see, all these players who gave it a try last year were nothing to write home about. Is there anyone else who can return kicks on this current roster?
First, let’s look at the resume of the rookie players this year.
WR David Bell returned punts in high school but not college. UFA WR Mike Harley returned 12 kickoffs and three punts in his five seasons in Miami. In 2020, he had a 21.3 yards per average in kickoff returns.
UFA WR Travell Harris has extensive experience in the return game while at Washington State. His career numbers are 86 kickoff returns for 2,063 yards, one touchdown and a 24.0 yards per return average. His best year was his freshman season when he had a 27.6 average. With punt returns, his career numbers are 21 returns for 158 yards and a 7.5 average over four seasons. Harris runs a 4.49 in the 40.
UFA CB Shaun Jolly had one punt return in college for a 10.0 average.
For the veterans, WR Amari Cooper returned eight punts in his rookie NFL year with Oakland. He had 41 yards and a 5.1 average. He was not a return man while at Alabama. It is highly-unlikely that the WR1 will be out on the field taking additional hits in the return game.
WR Ja’Marcus Bradley appears to be the best one available but has only two kickoff returns as experience with zero punt returns at the NFL level. While in college at Louisiana, he had 24 kickoffs for 474 yards with a 19.8 average. His five punt returns only had a 6.8 yards per return average. Bradley runs a 4.4 in the 40.
CB Lavert Hill returned three kickoffs and one punt while at Michigan with minimal stats. S Ronnie Harrison, FB Johnny Stanton, TE Harrison Bryant and CB Denzel Ward all had one punt return each while in college while TE Miller Forristall returned three punts for a 2.7 average.
Any free agent help?
A quick look at the free agent list reveals few prospects.
WR Dede Westbrook is a free agent. In four years with Jacksonville and one last year in Minnesota, he has had 69 punt returns for 644 yards, one touchdown, a long of 74-yards with a 9.3 yards per return average.
Westbrook has also fielded seven kickoff returns for 126 yards with an 18.0 average. With Westbrook, the Browns would get immediate help in the receiver room who has experience in the return game and is a dynamic playmaker when healthy; although injury has significantly hampered his progression over the last few seasons.
WR Will Fuller has returned punts in college and one punt in the NFL. He is currently unsigned and would also help the receiver room as a four-year veteran. He has also missed 40 games during this stretch due to assorted injuries. CB Janoris Jackrabbit Jenkins returned 18 punts in college and nine in his rookie year with the St. Louis Rams. He is 33 years old and currently unsigned.
And former return man/receiver JoJo Natson remains unsigned. In Week 3 in 2020, he lined up to take a kickoff and subsequently tore his ACL which landed him on IR. The Browns brought him back last year to which he found the practice squad twice and was brought up to the 53-man roster twice before being waived in late December.
In college Natson had 56 punt returns for 643 yards, four touchdowns with a long of 80-yards and an 11.5 yards per return average. In his NFL career, he has caught 67 punt returns for 507 yards, zero touchdowns and a 7.6 average. Natson also has 41 kickoff returns with stints with the Jets, Rams and Browns for 860 yards, zero touchdowns, a long of 32-yards and a 21.0 yards per return average.
Or perhaps look to the USFL for help. Their top return man, Maurice Alexander, recently signed with Detroit. But their second best returner was WR Cameron Echols-Luper who is still available. He had 26 kickoff returns for 748 yards, a long of 53-yards plus an average of 28.8 yards per return. Although he did not field punts while playing for New Jersey, in college he had 54 punt returns for 558 yards with one touchdown and a 10.3 average. His kickoff returns in college was 31 returns for 551 yards and a 17.8 per punt return average. He runs a 4.59.
The pickings are very slim, but during training camp cuts maybe return players such as WR Kalif Raymond of Detroit, Kansas City WR Demarcus Robinson, the Jets’ Braxton Berrios or WR Tavon Austin of Buffalo may see the waiver wire.
The loss of Grant is horrible, horrible, horrible news for Browns fans. As you can see, the numbers in the return game last year was the reason the club signed Grant.
What to do next is ST coach Mike Priefer’s problem to solve, and Browns’ fans to moan about.