The Cleveland Browns had a lot go wrong in the 2022 season.
While the defense carried much of the blame with far too many breakdowns, the special teams’ play was anything but special. That helps to explain why defensive coordinator Joe Woods and special teams coordinator Mike Priefer were replaced, respectively, by Jim Schwartz and Bubba Ventrone.
As the Browns prepare for their preseason opener on Thursday night against the New York Jets in the annual Hall of Fame Game, Ventrone provided some updates on Tuesday regarding the current state of the special teams unit.
First up was kick returner/wide receiver Jakeem Grant Jr., who the Browns signed as a free agent in 2022 to bolster the return game. Unfortunately, Grant, who was coming off a season that saw him earn Second-Team All-Pro honors, tore his Achilles tendon in training camp and was lost for the season.
Grant is back for another go this season and things are looking good so far, according to Ventrone (quotes via a team-provided transcript):
“He looks pretty good. He looks explosive. At some point, we’ll get him going in team drills and into games. Obviously, he’s done this before, so he’s got a little bit of experience and understands his body and what he needs to do to be effective. Whenever we do our turnover circuit, in the beginning, we have the ball handling and he’s shown really good judgment and tracking, so that’s been positive.”
Ventrone has also been working with Jaelon Darden as an option in the return game. Darden, who is in his third season and second with the Browns, has experience in returning both punts (50 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and kickoffs (34 with the Buccaneers), and has caught Ventrone’s eye:
“(Jaelon) judges the ball well. He’s a smooth, natural, catcher, not the biggest body, but he’s got good speed. He’s elusive. Yeah, he’s done a good job as well.”
The biggest question, however, surrounds second-year kicker Cade York, who had a rocky rookie season in 2022. Ventrone has been working with York throughout the offseason to simplify his in-game routine and the early returns have been positive, according to Ventrone:
“I think (Cade will) take big steps. I really do. He’s done a good job of keeping everything simple. There hasn’t been a lot of variation in his mechanics, he’s not overthinking (and) there’s been a lot of consistency with the operation, the snap and the hold. So that’s been a big positive. He’s had great results in the spring and then now into training camp, everything’s been positive.
“We’ve kicked more in a team setting than we probably normally would. And I think that those team reps help because you can feel everything out. You have perspective, like the visual, to actually see it happen. I think the biggest thing for him is just keeping everything simple and applying the correction and making the correction fast to the next rep if there is a missed kick.”
Finally, Ventone highlighted the metrics he will use during the preseason to determine who will be the core players when the regular season begins on September 10:
“These preseason games are definitely a big evaluation tool. The competitive practices, things I’m looking for – obviously, consistency amongst all these young players. Consistency, the techniques, who can play aggressive. Another big thing that I’m going to evaluate heavily is, can we play with good discipline and fundamentals and really, no penalties. Penalties in the return game? It’s a lack of execution. It’s a lack of focus. Playing undisciplined (and with) bad technique. That’s how penalties come about in a return game.”
The changes on defense may have drawn many of the offseason headlines, but the Browns will need the special teams to be better than they have been the past few seasons if they want to make a serious run at the playoffs this fall.
We will all get our first look at just how much progress Ventrone has been able to make on Thursday night when the Browns face the Jets.