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Browns position battle: KR Jakeem Grant vs. KR Jaelon Darden vs. KR Demetric Felton

The punt and kickoff return man must be fast and elusive

NFL: Denver Broncos at Cleveland Browns Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Browns haven’t had an exceptional kick return guy since the days of who?

The franchise’s best kickoff returner was Josh Cribbs. He had 387 returns for 10,015 yards with eight touchdowns for a 25.9 yards per return average.

Behind Cribbs are Dino Hall, Eric Metcalf, Andre Davis, and Glen Young. Only Greg Pruitt had a better kick average at 26.3 yards per return and in a list of the best 50 Browns returners, but none had over two touchdowns.

Last season, rookie RB Jerome Ford ran back kickoffs for most of the season while WR Donovan Peoples-Jones was the primary punt returner. Ford was ranked third in the league in the number of returns with 30 for a 24.1 yards average per return with three kick returns over 40 yards. DPJ fielded 18 punts for a 12.4-yard average with a single touchdown.

All that could change this year.

Prior to last season, during the free agency period Cleveland inked return specialist Jakeem Grant away from the Chicago Bears. Grant is electric, elusive, and aggressive whose nickname is Mighty Mouse. Although a capable receiver, the purpose of signing the speedster was strictly to run back kickoffs and punts.

Towards the end of last season, Cleveland also claimed WR/KR Jaelon Darden off waivers from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Darden is also a very good returner. Both he and Grant are listed as receivers, but if either makes the final roster, their primary duties will be as returners and rarely utilized as wide receivers mainly because this year’s receiver room is packed with talent.

In the 2021 NFL draft, GM Andrew Berry selected RB/WR Demetric Felton in the six-round out of UCLA. Armed with versatility, Felton was a return man in college.

Both Ford and DPJ are expected to have bigger roles with the offense this year. What the coaching staff prefers is for another able body to take on the return roles and not risk either one of these players working for the special teams unit.

New York Jets v Cleveland Browns
Assistant head coach/special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone
Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Now let’s discuss the new special teams coach Bubba Ventrone whom Cleveland signed away from the Indianapolis Colts. If the Browns were happy with where their special teams units were the past few years they would not have let Coach Mike Priefer go who has almost two decades of coaching experience.

According to Rick Gosselin’s Special Teams rankings, Indy’s rankings while Ventrone was their ST coach: 2022- #8, 2021- #2, 2020- #4, 2019- #29, 2018 - #10.

That’s four Top-10 finishes in five seasons. Before that, he was the assistant special teams coach with New England and was tutored by Bill Belichick, who got his start in the NFL as the special teams coach of the New York Football Giants, So, special teams have always been significant with Belichick and his experience was passed down to Ventrone.

A former Browns special teams standout, Ventrone has come back to Cleveland where he also holds the title of assistant head coach.

You can bet your backside that Ventrone will not only improve the Browns’ special teams, but three things will definitely occur: 1) Ventrone’s reputation as being one of the league’s best special teams coaches is on the line - so failure is not an option, 2) Ventrone spent the most years as a player with Cleveland and does not wish to tarnish those years, and 3) his return man will be a burner.

And that task will either be Grant, Darden, or Felton. But which one has the inside track? On a list of apparent “locks” to make the final roster on cutdown day next Tuesday, none of these three appear on the registry.

So far in preseason, of these three players, only Felton has returned any punts or kickoffs in live game action. The only other return guys to handle this workload so far have been Mike Harley, Jr. and Hassan Hall with minimal results.

And it’s not inconceivable that DPJ or Jerome Ford will be re-inserted into punt and kickoff duties at some point. But what Ventrone wants is to have an elite speed guy who can take these duties as a full-time job.

NFL: Cleveland Browns Training Camp Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Jakeem Grant

5’-6”, 170 pounds

Age: 30

College: Texas Tech

40 time: 4.38

Senior season receiving yards: 1,268

Senior season receiving touchdowns: 10

College career kickoff returns: 87

College career kickoff return yards: 2,169

College career kickoff touchdowns: 4

College career punt returns: 0

College career punt return yards: 0

College career punt return touchdowns: 0

NFL career kickoff returns: 110

NFL career kickoff return yards: 2,699

NFL career kickoff touchdowns: 2

NFL career kickoff average: 24.5

NFL career punt returns: 119

NFL career punt return yards: 1,228

NFL career punt return touchdowns: 4

NFL career punt return average: 10.3

Grant seems to have the inside track on being the main return man. But will he become the choice? With this prediction regarding the final roster after the Philadelphia Eagles preseason game, Grant makes the list as a returner/receiver.

On the surface, it would appear so owning the most NFL experience with electric returns all dotted on YouTube. But he will turn 31 during the season, is coming off an Achilles tear, and he agreed to a contract restructure during the off-season which might indicate a high probability of getting the ax.

When the Browns signed Marquise Goodwin from the Seattle Seahawks it was expected that he would compete and probably win the returner position. Now in practices, Grant is taking the majority of reps at both the kickoff and punt returns. If he makes the final roster, it will be as a kick returner and not because of his receiver attributes.

Cleveland Browns Offseason Workout Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Jaelon Darden

5’-8”, 173 pounds

Age: 24

College: North Texas

40 time: 4.46

Senior season receiving yards: 1,190

Senior season receiving touchdowns: 19

College career kickoff returns: 17

College career kickoff return yards: 299

College career kickoff touchdowns: 0

College career punt returns: 35

College career punt return yards: 310

College career punt return touchdowns: 1

NFL career kickoff returns: 21

NFL career kickoff return yards: 426

NFL career kickoff touchdowns: 0

NFL career kickoff average: 20.3

NFL career punt returns: 52

NFL career punt return yards: 487

NFL career punt return touchdowns: 0

NFL career punt return average: 9.4

As you can see, in the college game, Grant had the most experience at kickoff returns while Darden was more of a punt returner. The issue here is that Cleveland is not going to keep one player for each aspect of the return game. They want one guy who can do both if they are going to keep just a return specialist. Otherwise, Ford and DPJ will resume dual roles.

The problem is that DPJ is not an elusive guy with great speed. Ford, on the other hand, is very good at kickoff returns. However, he has been hurt twice in two years.

The 40 times for each of these athletes are as follows: Grant – 4.38, Ford – 4.4, Darden – 4.46, and DPJ – 4.48.

For the upcoming game against the Kansas City Chiefs, the official depth chart released by the Browns has Darden backing up Grant at both kickoff and punt returns.

The most reps in practices have been given to Grant so far.

Syndication: Canton Repository Julie Vennitti Botos / Canton Repository / USA TODAY NETWORK

Demetric Felton

5’-9”, 190 pounds

Age: 25

College: UCLA

40 time: 4.58

Senior season rushing yards: 668

Senior season rushing touchdowns: 5

College career kickoff returns: 26

College career kickoff return yards: 611

College career kickoff touchdowns: 1

College career punt returns: 0

College career punt return yards: 0

College career punt return touchdowns: 0

NFL career kickoff returns: 10

NFL career kickoff return yards: 183

NFL career kickoff touchdowns: 0

NFL career kickoff average: 18.3

NFL career punt returns: 39

NFL career punt return yards: 269

NFL career punt return touchdowns: 0

NFL career punt return average: 6.9

In the Hall of Fame Game against the New York Jets, Felton fielded five punts for 10 yards and a 2.0 average per return. In the next game versus the Washington Commanders, he had two punt returns for five yards and three kickoffs which netted 65 yards including one that broke for 27 yards. Against Philadelphia, he had one kickoff return for nine yards plus two punts for four yards.

Felton has the ability to make the final roster with his status of taking that third running back spot and is also listed on the depth chart as a return man. In the event that any number of receivers become injured, he is able to fill in there as well.

But so far in two seasons, he hasn’t set the woods on fire with any production at any position. This preseason Ventrone has really forced the issue with Felton in the return game to see if he can make his value more of an argument once the coaching staff begins to choose who will stay and will probably become a practice squad member.

Felton needs a dynamic performance against the Chiefs to cement his roster spot.


Of the three athletes profiled, if only one makes the roster, which player?

This poll is closed

  • 68%
    Jakeem Grant
    (195 votes)
  • 5%
    Jaelon Darden
    (15 votes)
  • 25%
    Demetric Felton
    (73 votes)
283 votes total Vote Now