In the NFL, special teams are a lot like offensive linemen and referees: They only get noticed when they do something wrong. All three are expected to be basically perfect and anything but is considered an abject failure.
For the Cleveland Browns special teams, kicker Cade York will get the majority of attention as the player that can directly put points on the board. Punter Corey Bojorquez had an up-and-down season for the Browns but nothing too noticeable.
“Nothing too noticeable” has mostly described Cleveland’s kick return game since Josh Cribbs held the role. WR Donovan Peoples-Jones’ punt return touchdown last year was the only one since 2020. In the last three years, the Browns have had 13 players return kicks or punts without much success.
Last offseason, WR/KR/PR Jakeem Grant was signed to solve that problem but tore his Achilles tendon before the season started. Grant returns this year but, with no guaranteed money on his contract and a tough injury recovery, faces an uphill battle.
So far in camp, we have seen Peoples-Jones, Grant, WR Jaelon Darden and RB/WR Demetric Felton returning punts. First, we saw Darden and DPJ during full special teams drills:
Grant returned to the field on Tuesday and was with Darden and DPJ:
Then we saw Felton join the group:
Given Peoples-Jones’ value to the offense, he should rarely be used as a returner. Felton seems to have the highest mountain to climb to make the roster while Grant and Darden would need their return skills to join the initial 53-man roster.
RB Jerome Ford was the team’s primary kick returner last year but is now Nick Chubb’s primary backup. Risking the #2 running back in a phase of the game that rarely sees great results could be disastrous.
If it comes down to one roster spot for a returner, Grant has far more experience but his age and injury could give the edge to Darden. That is exactly what we did in our roster projection.
A quick statistical comparison shows that Grant is a more proven returner:
- Grant - (6 seasons) - 119 punt returns, 10.3 average, four touchdowns plus 110 kick returns, 24.5 average and two touchdowns
- Darden - (2 seasons) - 52 punt returns, 9.4 average, zero touchdowns plus 21 kick returns, 20.3 average and zero touchdowns
The key for Cleveland’s decision will be if Grant still has the same burst that he showed previously while turning 31 during the season and which player can help on offense if needed.
Right now, a lot is up in the air which is not true in most of the other spots on the Browns roster.
Do you think the proven Grant, despite age and injury, will take the role or the younger Darden?