The Cleveland Browns haven’t had a great kick returner since the days of Josh Cribbs. But he played from 2005 to 2012. Yes, there has been a guy here and there that had fleeting success, but nothing consistent like Cribbs was.
With punt returns, the Browns have been using Donovan Peoples-Jones as their primary guy, and Jaelon Darden when he was brought up from the practice squad. DPJ did return a punt last year in an electrifying punt return for a touchdown against the Houston Texans, but his punt average was not very good. Then on the trade deadline, he was traded to the Detroit Lions.
Jakeem Grant was signed last year to take on all the return responsibilities, but for the second year in a row he suffered a bad injury and has probably seen his last game in Cleveland.
Prior to the Week 9 game against the Arizona Cardinals, the franchise signed James Proche to the practice squad. He was then elevated on game day and had a very good game. The Browns did not return any kickoffs, but Proche was on the field for all nine Cardinals punts. Proche handled six punts for 55 yards including a 17 and a 20-yard return.
Unfortunately, the latter return was negated for a holding call.
Despite the penalty, what it showed to the 67,919 in attendance was that he was capable of handling the punt return duties going forward.
The only question that remains, is, who is James Proche?
Proche (pronounced pro-shay) grew up in Dallas, Texas. He attended 5A Red Oak High School until his senior year when he transferred to 6A DeSoto High School.
He was into his first practice week at DeSoto when he suddenly felt weak with stomach pain and ended up on his knees. Proche had to be helped to the sidelines and then ended up in the hospital. From there, multiple tests were performed. The final prognosis was that he had acute kidney failure.
As a senior player, he was smack in the middle of colleges trying to recruit him. The doctors made an educated guess that a combination of dehydration along with the excessive use of the over-the-counter pain medicine Aleve may have caused his body’s trauma. The National Kidney Foundation warns that Aleve can increase the risk of sudden kidney failure because of how it filters through the kidney.
Proche was then hospitalized for seven days. He had to have kidney dialysis and was in intensive care for some of his hospital stay. The only good news was that the kidney failure wasn’t permanent, but had the possibility of returning to normal with the right preparation and treatment – and time.
This was not on the timetable for a high school athlete who had been very productive to this point and had a lot of interest from college scouts. Proche was given a prognosis of a minimum of several months which of course shortened his senior season of football. It also dashed a lot of hopes of getting a good D-1 scholarship. Suddenly, the phone quit ringing, and the letters ceased.
At this junction, the focus was getting Proche completely healthy without any lifelong implications of kidney issues.
He played in just seven games where his stats were minimal with 18 receptions for 335 yards and a single touchdown. He also returned 15 punts for 227 yards and one touchdown. Luckily, he was rated as a three-star athlete which was probably based more on his prior seasons. This distinction enabled him to be able to contact some colleges in order to gauge their interest. The schools that still showed interest included Louisville, SMU, Houston, North Texas, and TCU.
Proche (5’-11”, 180 pounds) then committed to SMU in June of 2014 and enrolled that August.
In his freshman year, he was redshirted mainly to monitor his health. There is no longer any processed protein in his body as he monitors his protein intake. Foods with phosphorus are a no-no for him, as are sodas and sweet tea. He drinks a lot of water and maintains hydration. Plus, every July Proche had an annual checkup.
In his first game at SMU in 2016, he played just 20 snaps. Since he was a workout junkie, his playing time increased. For the year, he had 57 receptions for 709 yards and six touchdowns. Proche was the team’s kick returner with 12 punt returns and 15 on kickoffs.
After gaining 806 yards in his sophomore campaign, his junior year, he began to shine as a full-time starter. He had 93 receptions for 1,199 yards with 12 touchdowns and returned 20 punts and 12 kickoffs.
During his senior year, Proche had his best season yet gaining 1,225 yards on 111 receptions with 15 touchdowns. The 111 receptions led the nation. In the return game, he had 13 punt returns but only a single kickoff return. During his four seasons, he also attempted five pass attempts. All the while, Proche had zero fumbles. He also ranked in the Top-5 nationally with 15 scores.
He was named First Team All-AAC his junior and senior seasons, and Second Team All-American his final year. He was invited to the Combine where he did 20 reps in the bench press, and had a 34.5” vertical leap. His 40 time is 4.42.
Proche wore jersey #3. He got the nickname “Channel 3” as a reference to folks liking to watch good television shows, and Proche put on a good display in each national broadcast SMU played in. Proche has been named The Earl Campbell Tyler Rose Award National Player of the Week for the sixth week of the college football season.
He was known for being in great shape and doing a lot of film study. For his duration while at SMU, Proche’s levels were stable.
On to the NFL
The dreams of being an NFL player were just in reach as Proche finished his college stint. Despite a great career that had two highly productive seasons in his final two years plus good Combine numbers, he wasn’t drafted until Round 6 by the Baltimore Ravens.
In training camp, he impressed his coaches with this work ethic and was listed as one of the most impressive rookies in camp. He was the first player on the practice field and put the work in. It surprised nobody when he made the final roster.
He returned a punt for 26 yards in the season opener against the Browns and was regulated to the return game until Week 11 where he caught a 14-yard completion, his only catch for the year but did return 23 punts. For his efforts, Porche was named to the PFWA NFL All-Rookie Team.
The following season, he changed his Number 3 to #10 to allow newly-signed Odell Beckham, Jr. the opportunity to wear #3. Proche entered the offense more as he was targeted 20 times with 16 catches for 202 yards including 10 receptions that converted a first down. In 2022, he had just eight receptions for 62 yards and only returned four punts.
After a decent training camp this year, he was a last-day cutdown. The Ravens kept six receivers including the new rookie Zay Flowers and OBJ.
From there, he cleared waivers.
Looking back at this scouting report coming out of SMU, here are a few of his traits:
- Good hands as a punt returner
- Late adjustments are special
- Very good win rate on contested balls
- Has below-average vertical speed
- Too reliant on winning the jump balls
- Strides are tight and restrictive
After being released from the Ravens despite appearing in 44 NFL games, all Proche could do was continue his workouts, watch what he ate, and wait for his agent to call with some good news.
That came on Halloween, which was also the league’s trade deadline. Proche was signed to the Browns practice squad along with RB Kenyon Drake and OT Geron Christian. Then prior to the Week 9 game against the Arizona Cardinals, Proche was elevated from the practice squad to the gameday roster.
In that 27-0 victory, he returned six punts for 55 yards with long returns of 17 and 20 yards. Except the 20-yarder was eliminated on a holding call. Still, it showed that Proche could potentially bust one and allow Cleveland some better field position.
Oddly enough, he wore jersey number 11 which had been Donovan Peoples-Jones’ number while also the Browns punt returner.
On November 7, Proche and Christian were promoted to the active roster. Proche’s contract is a one-year deal with a base salary of $1.01 million. This obviously means that Proche will be the return man going forward.
Growing up, Proche’s Achilles heel was that he thought he was Superman. He didn’t like to show any weakness. The kidney scare changed all that and gave him a new perspective on his health.
When the cape came off, that is when reality hit him. And now Proche’s levels have remained stable and hopefully, he has found a new forever home.