Friday, July 27, 2012

Browns' special teams try to be special again

By Fred Greetham

July 27, 2012

As the Browns prepare to embark upon their second season under Pat Shurmur there are many questions that remain. With training camp opening this coming week, we’ve taken a position-by-position analysis of the current roster as the team heads to camp.

This is the last part as we take a look at the specialists.

Candidates: Phil Dawson, Reggie Hodges, Christian Yount, Jeff Wolfert and Spencer Lanning.

It wasn’t too long ago that the strongest part of the Browns was their special teams. With Phil Dawson kicking, Dave Zastudil or Reggie Hodges doing the punting and Ryan Pontbriand handling the long-snapping.

However, last year under first year special teams coach Chris Tabor, the Browns special teams took a step back in several areas. Hodges tore his Achilles in training camp. Pontbriand—who had made the Pro Bowl as a long-snapper—seemingly lost his touch with bad snaps in 2011 costing the Browns a couple of games. He was quickly released.

Dawson had another stellar season and was franchised for the second-straight season, indicating the 14-year kicker is one of the most valuable players on the Browns. Dawson is on pace to eclipse many Browns franchise records if he plays a couple more seasons in Cleveland.

In addition to the specialists, Josh Cribbs was hampered by injuries and had a sub-par season in returning kickoffs and punt returns.

Phil Dawson (5-11, 200, 14th year, Texas) – Dawson is the second-leading scorer in team history with 1,155 points behind only Lou Groza. Dawson despite being 37-years old has not slowed down. In 2011, Dawson kicked seven field goals for 50 or more yards, which tied an NFL record. His career field goal accuracy is 83.1 percent, highest in Browns history and 10th best in NFL history. In 2011, Dawson hit 24-of-29 attempts and 20-of-20 PATs for a total of 92 points.

Jeff Wolfert (6-2, 185, 1st year, Missouri) – Wolfert was in camp last season and is back to give Dawson a break from some of the kicking in training camp.

Reggie Hodges (6-0, 220, 6th year, Ball State) – Hodges returns after rupturing his Achilles tendon in training camp last season and sidelining him for the entire season. Richmond McGee started the season but also was injured and veteran Brad Maynard steadied the ship for the bulk of the season. The Browns are hoping Hodges returns the form he showed in 2010 when he was ranked 9th in the NFL in punting with a 43.9 average. Maynard was last in yards per punt 40.5 in 2011. In addition, Hodges is a good holder for Dawson.

Spencer Lanning (5-11, 1st year, South Carolina) – Since Hodges is coming off of a major injury, Lanning is in camp as insurance that Hodges is able to perform.

Christian Yount (6-1, 256, 2nd year, UCLA) – Yount joined the Browns after Ryan Pontbriand imploded after 11 games and played the final five games as the team’s long snapper. He handled the long snapping duties for Tampa Bay for the first seven games of the season after signing as an undrafted rookie free agent. Yount handled the final five games flawlessly. Bad snaps cost the Browns two games in 2011 and Pontbriand was recently cut by the 49ers and former Browns special teams coach Brad Seely.

Better than 2011?: Dawson has been as steady a player as the Browns have had and the return of Hodges should improve the field position game. The Browns also lost two games in 2011 due to bad snaps and Young came in and was nearly flawless once he took over.

Josh Cribbs should be able to return to what he does best and that is covering kickoffs and returning kicks. Trying to get Cribbs back to an elite level is a top priority.

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