There is uncertainty in the air surrounding Berea, Ohio. And it is more than those torrid winds which cascade off of Lake Erie.
The Cleveland Browns are assured of a losing record this year. That makes two seasons in a row. And in fact, during the three years during head coach Kevin Stefanski’s tenure, the franchise has finished no better than third place in the AFC North division.
Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer was reportedly just let go late in February. This article was written prior to that but gives some ideas of who could be in line to replace Priefer.
Problems and issues are everywhere. Play calling is bad, the defense can’t stop the run, tackling is poor, various injuries have decimated the center position plus most of the linebacker corps, and a new quarterback who can’t generate any offense nor score points.
Not to mention the special teams play. Where do we start?
On the surface, this aspect of the game is often an overlooked part of football. But savvy clubs who put the time and effort into upgrading their special teams can gain an edge to help both the offensive and defensive units.
There are so many categories that belong to special teams. This unit can be an asset with field position on both sides of the ball. Who are the better teams punting after failing to move the ball on a drive? These are key things to pay attention to.
The Cleveland Browns just signed my client Charley Hughlett to a 4-year extension. Largest signing bonus, guarantee, and overall value in league history for a long snapper.— Brett Tessler (@TesslerSports) October 28, 2022
The long snapper is set with Charley Hughlett who remains steady and was given a four-year extension in late October worth $6.05 million with an $865,000 signing bonus. The contract is the largest ever for the long-snapper position in league history. He is in his eighth year and has never missed a game since he started his first game in 2015. On his resume is a forced fumble and 18 tackles.
Hughlett, age 32, came to Cleveland via stints with three other NFL clubs. His patience early on in his playing career has paid off for the Browns; who is the second-longest tenured player on the roster behind LG Joel Bitonio. His reliability has been a key asset and the main reason why the Browns wanted to keep him as a core piece on special teams.
With Hughlett in-house for the future, Cleveland can check off that special teams box.
The Browns’ special teams units are again some of the worst in the NFL. It all began with the season-ending injury to new return man Jakeem Grant. This put the entire return game into a slanted trajectory.
There were several band-aids used. Demetric Felton was supposed to be this punt return demon but has had minimal stats with just 6.0 yards per return. Chester Rogers was worse with a 4.7-yard average.
Donovan Peoples-Jones took on punt return duties last year and did return one for a 76-yard touchdown this year, but his return average is just 12.4 yards per return or ranked 9th in the league. He is ranked 14th in total return yards (233). But if you take out that one TD run, his stats become just 147 yards with an 8.6-yard average per return which would land him ranked 30th.
Kickoff returns have been a roller coaster. David Bell and Felton averaged 12 and 11 yards, respectively. D’Ernest Johnson and Rogers haven’t done much better. Only rookie Jerome
Ford has added a spark when healthy. He had a 48-yard return on the opening play against Miami and has a 25.3 yards per return average, ranked 20th.
#Browns special teams once again just a total fiasco— Jake Trotter (@Jake_Trotter) November 20, 2022
There is this stigma that each game a few special teams plays will have a dismissive impact on this roster every week since Priefer was hired. What is going on in practice sessions with this unit? Why are the exact same problems occurring game after game?
Like blocked field goal attempts. Has anyone ever seen a team that has had as many as the Browns have had this year? Why is that? Is it a blocking scheme issue, a ball placement issue with the holder, maybe a slower snap delivery, or perhaps it stems from the kicker?
Any blocked kick is a critical game-changer, a mood swing, and a dagger in the offense.
Blocking a field goal is amplified because it means not only the loss of possible points but that the other club’s defense has stuffed Cleveland’s offense.
Cleveland has had its share of issues with kickers ever since Phil Dawson was shown the door despite making the Pro Bowl after his final year. So, GM Andrew Berry drafted kicker Cade York in the fourth round this past April. He is indeed a rookie kicker who plays like a rookie.
Although York began the year as the kicking savior after he hit a 58-yarder in the opening game against Carolina, he then went 4-4 on field goals yet missed two extra points. York hadn’t missed a PAT since his freshman year at LSU. Of course, the NFL does add some yardage to their point after attempts which do make a difference to some kickers, like the Browns’ rookie.
York could very well be grouped into the Austin Siebert/Zane Gonzalez category whereas the club drafted a kicker one year and cut him the next.
So far York has a 74.2% field goal conversion. Under that stat, he is currently ranked 28th of all NFL kickers who have attempted at least 20 field goals. He is 18th in field goals made (24), 13th in attempts (32), and 18th in kicks converted from 50 yards or greater (4-6). York’s 58-yarder in the opening game is the fifth-longest successful field goal this year.
In retrospect, former Browns kicker Chase McLaughlin who was released once York was drafted, is either Top 5 or Top 10 in all categories.
Priefer told the Chronicle-Telegraph about York missing six kicks out of 15 at home:
“(York) has kicked enough games in our stadium and he has kicked enough games in the NFL, now it is time — not that he hasn’t and I think he is trending in that direction — for him to show up for us on a more consistent basis. He knows that, and I am excited for his future here. He knows that in the fourth quarter and you have a chance to put a team away you have to make those kicks.”
Any media outlet with a microphone and a laptop has offered their opinion on the York situation. Especially the two field goal attempts in which he struck the entire rightside of the football which sent it into the stands as a souvenir with a hard left turn. Which is a complete embarrassment. And what’s worse is both kicks were short attempts.
Priefer continued regarding those wonky kicks:
“NFL kickers shouldn’t kick balls like that, and he knows that. I don’t know if it was a loss of focus or the time of the game. There is really no excuse for that type of kick.”
Another bright spot for this group is punter Corey Bojorquez who was signed in free agency this past year. Bojorquez has been a major upgrade over what the Browns had last year and is having a fine season.
There are many situations with a punter that don’t show up on a stat sheet. In fact, some kicks can actually hurt a punter’s overall yardage average but have more opportunity to help the defense. Finding a kicker that has aspirations of getting the field position tilted toward his own club is a huge plus. Teams finding themselves pinned in their own zone can have a tough time moving the ball.
Bojorquez is ranked 8th in the league in yards per punt average at 48.5 which is less than six yards off the top slot. His long of 76 yards place him second and is 21st in net yards with 2,346. Bojo is seventh in touchbacks and has not had a touchdown run back this season. He is bottom-third in total punts (57) which is a good thing. He does have a weakness of not landing the ball inside the 20-yard line and is ranked 17th with just 23 kicks but had two magnificent kicks land inside the five in the Washington game.
But just like the past two seasons the coverage units are not good and seem to be getting worse.
Priefer is a very positive coach. He will see the landscape of his group and tell anyone that he has a very core of good players with which to work.
Coach Priefer spoke with Browns Zone and stated:
“I know we all have ups and downs as coaches, but I expect our guys to play at a high level. Especially when you do lose close games, you are thinking, ‘Man, we could have done this. We could have done that.’ We have done some nice things and we have made some good plays, but overall we are not playing at the level that we need to play at to help our team in terms of field position.”
With the exception of DPJ’s single punt return for a score and the lone 48-yarder by Ford, the return game is simply not a threat. Then there are the penalties on field goal attempts which place the placement even further back which loses leverage. In the first Baltimore game, Johnson took the kickoff out of the end zone but a holding call placed the ball back at the 12. Shouldn’t the kickoff return unit simply take the touchback rather than jeopardize a penalty that hurts their starting field position?
Is Priefer on the hot seat? Obviously, he would not make the cut if the head guy gets canned, but what if the Browns retain Stefanski’s services? Will Priefer remain the special teams coach going forward?
If not, we here at DBN offer some suggestions for a new special teams coach.
But before we get started, we have some criteria that must be in place. It is critical for a special teams coordinator to get to know each player on the roster. These men are all tremendous football coaches, but more importantly, great people. They must do their best to support their player’s efforts both in terms of time commitment and the ability to utilize every available player on the roster.
The practice periods need to maximize the impact this unit has on game days. The first step in making special teams important is to dedicate time to it, but that must be followed up by creatively emphasizing its value to the team each day.
Just remember, Bill Belichick began as the special teams coordinator for the New York Football Giants so the position has great merit.
Our list in no particular order:
Joe Judge – Offensive assistant & QB coach New England Patriots
Before he was the head coach of the Giants, Judge was one of the best special teams coordinators in the league. The fact that Judge has experience running a team can only help. He was at the helm of the coordinator job with New England from 2015-2019 and during those years the Patriots finished in the top 10 each season including three seasons ranked #3. His resume is a given that he is one of the best.
Belichick has always emphasized great special teams play and groomed Judge into that vision.
Randy Brown – Assistant special teams Baltimore Ravens
It is not by coincidence that the Ravens have one of the best special teams units every year. So why not pry one of their coaches away and show Cleveland how it is really done.
Brown has been coaching special teams for some time now, 19 years to be exact. He joined Baltimore in 2008 as a kicking consultant and before that he spent four years with Philadelphia. It is by no unforeseen reason that K Justin Tucker is annually the best kicker in the league and ranks as the most accurate in NFL history. This aspect alone would be a reason to bring in Brown so that he can groom York. Tucker came into the league as a young 23-year-old undrafted free agent and under Brown’s tutelage now has a career 90.4% of field goals made.
Under Brown as a coach, six Ravens special teams players have made the Pro Bowl which includes three kickers, one return specialist, one punter, and long snapper.
With Brown and his special teams coordinator, they have been a Top-6 finish in seven consecutive seasons plus a Top-3 finish in four consecutive seasons. In addition, the Ravens’ special teams have had the Number 1 ranking in four seasons and are currently the lead dog again this year.
Brown is regarded as a “kicking guru.”
Joe Houston - Special teams assistant New England Patriots
Hiring Houston would be getting a Belichick special teams clone. They have techniques and practice schedules that are worked on daily. Last year the Patriots finished the year ranked #2 in the league in special teams and this year under special teams coordinator Cameron Achord they sit at Number 5.
Houston has just three years in the league all with New England. Before that, he was a special teams analyst with the University of Alabama. From 2012-2018 he spent most years with special teams with three other college programs.
Houston is a former kicker at USC and then spent two seasons playing in the Arena League. He was referred to as a “kicking whisperer” by the Des Moines Register when he was at Iowa State which is good news for Cleveland’s rookie kicker.
Phil Galiano – Assistant special teams New Orleans Saints
Special teams is Galiano’s calling. His first gig in this area was with Tampa Bay from 2012-2013, then Rutgers, the Miami Dolphins, Penn State, and finally with the Saints from 2019 to the present. Galiano is a veteran in the coaching ranks with 22 years of experience, including six seasons in the NFL.
In 2019 New Orleans was the Number 1 ranked special teams unit. The past two years they ranked #5 both seasons. Last year the Saints special teams unit ranked fourth in the NFL in opponent average starting position after kickoffs (24.1-yard line) and eighth in punt return average (10.0).
While with Tampa Bay they led the league with three blocked punts. His kicker at the time was Connor Barth who tied for the league lead in field goals of 40+ yards. Punter Michael Koenen led the NFL in touchbacks on kickoffs and touchback percentage on kickoffs.
Rayna Stewart – Assistant special teams Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys are another club that really places an emphasis on exceptional special teams play. Stewart played five seasons in the NFL as a safety before going into coaching beginning in 2003 with four years of high school coaching before joining Northwestern University in 2007 and then the Tennessee Titans. In 2018 he was hired by Vanderbilt University to work with special teams and has stuck with this ever since, now with Dallas.
In 2021 he was on the Green Bay Packers staff and worked with current Browns punter Bojorquez, so this would be a smooth transition. He also was credited with improving veteran kicker Mason Crosby’s field goal percentage including a streak of 18 successful attempts in a row. While at Vanderbilt his punter Parker Thorne ranked fourth in the SEC.
Currently, Dallas is ranked seventh in special teams play.
If Stefanski is retained as head coach, do the Browns also retain Mike Priefer?
This poll is closed
Yes! Keep him
No! Can him instead