Training Camp is in its second week and the preseason is just a couple of days away. To this point, we have gone through every position in the WFNY’s State of the Browns series. The last group we will look at in this weekly look is the special teams.
The special teams unit is a very important group and could be a difference maker in any game. Last season, the team had an average year in both the kicking and punting. The Browns had trouble finding a kick returner, playing multiple players at this spot. The brightest spot of the special teams was punt returner Travis Benjamin, but halfway through the season, the Miami product sustained a season-ending injury. The team hopes he can come back healthy and be their mainstay at returner. Let’s take a look at the state of the Browns special teams unit.
Projected Special Teams Depth Chart
Travis Benjamin is the Browns’ most dynamic returner and a game changer. Last season in eight games, he had 22 punt returners for 257 yards, an average of 11.7 yards per return, and one touchdown. He was in the top ten of all returners in yards per return. He is a blazing runner who can run past any player in the league. He can take the corner on a return because of his elite speed. He has good vision to read where his blockers are located and find the hole. He can make defenders miss with his agility, too.
Benjamin’s biggest question mark is his injury history. He is coming off a torn ACL that ended his season after eight games. He also must show that he can play a full season without missing time with an injury. Benjamin is tabbed to be the starting punt returner. If he can regain his form from the previous two seasons, the Browns will have a game changer who can make the big play. He has the ability to flip the field position and momentum of the game.
Jordan Poyer took over as punt returner last season after the Browns lost Benjamin to a season-ending injury and other options did not work out. In his limited action last season, he performed well in eight returns. He had a total of 114 yards with an average of 14.3 yards per return. He has good vision to read the blocking and know where to hit the hole. He is not as fast as Benjamin, but he is still quick with elusiveness. He will be in position to back up Benjamin at punt returner. He can be a solid replacement if Benjamin misses any time this season.
Jim Leonhard is a seasoned veteran with a lot of experience in the punt return game. He has 104 punt returns in his career with 972 yards for an average of 9.3 yards per return. He has good hands and toughness to make the catch in high-pressure situations—Mike Pettine has referred to him as a “punt catcher” as opposed to a returner. He would be the third option at punt returner, but he gives the team someone with experience to rely on if needed.
Travis Benjamin’s elite speed gives him the ability to play both the punt returner and kick returner spot. He has limited time at kick returning, but has made the most of his opportunities. In three returns last season, he had 146 yards for an average of 48.7 yards per return. In his career, he has six returns for 222 yards for an average of 37 yards per return. His punt returning ability transfers to him being an excellent kick returner.
Benjamin uses his speed and elusiveness to make big plays for the Browns. He can give the team great field position and give the offense a head start. He must answer his injury concerns and be able to play a full season. He has not started at kick returner yet in his career. The Browns are looking to use his returning ability in both the punt and kick game. He is the favorite to win both the starting kick and punt returner spot.
Buster Skrine does not have much experience in kick returning, but he has the talent to be a good option for the Browns. In his career, he has three kick returns for 72 yards with an average of 24 yards per return. He is a very athletic player with elite speed. He can use his speed to make big plays in the return game. His biggest question mark is his experience at the position. He will compete for the starting position, but will most likely be the back up to Benjamin. He gives the team another speed option for the kick returning spot.
Andrew Hawkins is a quick and agile player who can make defenders miss. Hawkins does not have any experience as a returner in the NFL, but his skill set makes him a very good candidate. He is a small player with great elusiveness and speed to make big plays. He has the game changing ability that teams look for in a returner. His biggest question mark is his experience as a kick returner. He will battle for the starting spot at kick returner, but will most likely just battle with Skrine for the back up spot.
Justin Gilbert was a fantastic kick returner at the Oklahoma State University. In his college career, he had 102 kick returns with 2,681 yards for an average of 26.3 yards per return and six touchdowns. He has the speed and athleticism to make the big play for his team. He can run right past defenders with his speed and use his agility to make them miss. He is not higher on my list because of Mike Pettine’s reluctance to play him as a kick returner. Pettine said he did not want to risk injury by playing Gilbert as the kick returner.
Billy Cundiff is a seasoned veteran who was solid last season with the Browns. The 34-year old veteran played college football at Drake University. Last season with the Browns, he made 21 of 26 fields goals for an accuracy of 80.8%. His longest field goal was 51 yards and he was also perfect on his 32 extra point field goals. His best skill set is his kickoffs in which he had 42 touchbacks out of his 65 kickoffs.
Cundiff is a solid kicker who has a strong leg for kickoffs. He had one of his best seasons last year with the Browns. He has a strong leg but he sometimes lacks the accuracy. He struggles on the longer kicks because of his accuracy. He is an average kicker in the league and one the Browns will need to replace in near future. But he will be the starter going into the 2014 season.
Spencer Lanning finally received his first starting job in the NFL last season. He is a 2011 undrafted free agent from the University of South Carolina. Last season, he had 84 punts for 3,679 yards for an average of 43.8 yards per punt. He also had 28 punts land inside the 20-yard line, which was the 11th most in the NFL. Lanning does not have a huge leg, but he is very accurate with his placement of the punt. He is a young punter who can still get better and improve his performance. His biggest question is whether he can improve on last year’s solid showing. He is coming into the season as the starter and one the Browns would like to become their long-term punter. His job is very important for a team who has struggled on offense and is forced to punt more often.
Christian Yount is a solid long snapper with good snapping ability. He is a 2011 undrafted free agent from UCLA. He had one tackle last season and in his career he has five tackles. He signed an extension last offseason to become the long-term long snapper for the Browns.
The Browns could have one of the best returning teams in the league, both in kick and punt returns, because of Travis Benjamin. Benjamin is an electric speedster who can make big plays for a team who lacked them last season. He is in line to be the starting kick and punt returner and be someone who can change the game with one return. If he cannot man the position because of his health, the Browns have a couple good options after him. Buster Skrine and Andrew Hawkins give the Browns speed options as kick returners. Both players have great speed to be a threat as a returner. Both players have great speed to be a threat as a returner. Justin Gilbert is another option for the kick returner spot, but coach Mike Pettine has insisted that he does not want Gilbert playing returner because of the risk of injury. Jordan Poyer had a solid season last year filling in for Benjamin at punt returner. Jim Leonhard also gives the Browns an experienced punt returner to have as a backup.
The Browns kicking game could be an issue if Billy Cundiff cannot match his performance from last year. He has struggled in clutch situations throughout his career, so he may become a liability in big moments. The punting game should be good with Spencer Lanning because of accuracy. He is a very accurate punter who can force teams to start drives close to the goaline in bad field position. The Browns had a solid season in punt and kick coverage. Neither coverage team allowed a touchdown all season last year. The Browns look to have a good special teams unit that will be a major part of 2014 season.
Joe has been writing for WFNY since April 2014. He is a diehard Cleveland sports fan, who is just looking for a winner in this town. He has been around sports his entire life by working with the basketball and football teams at St. Ignatius High School and also with the football team at Baldwin Wallace. Besides watching and writing about sports, Joe loves to spend time with his family and two dogs.