For all of the success the Cleveland Browns enjoyed during the 2020 season, special teams were a liability, so they become a major focus in training camp ahead of the 2021 season. There are three players to keep an eye on in training camp this year with an eye towards special teams - Demetric Felton, Anthony Schwartz and Elijah Lee.
Of the three, only Schwartz is likely guaranteed a roster spot on the final 53, so the other two will be fighting to win a job throughout training camp and the preseason. The fact that two of them are rookies shows just how much emphasis was put on improving that area of the roster this year.
Demetric Felton, Running Receiver Back
Understandably, there's a fascination with Felton on offense as this running back, wide receiver hybrid, but special teams coach Mike Preifer, has raved about Felton both in the pre-draft process as well as in minicamp.
Felton stands out as a possible return option, which would be a huge lift for the Browns, but he's also been talked about as a gunner. In essence, were to be able to win the job doing all three, he'd be occupying the same role Josh Cribbs had as a member of the Browns.
The Browns really need someone to lock down the punt returner spot. Jojo Natson is a professional returner, but it's not ideal to dedicate a roster spot to that job, plus some miniscule role on offense, which now may be obsolete with the acquisition of Anthony Schwartz.
Kick returner doesn't really matter. The Browns took far too many kicks out of the end zone last year only to end up behind the starting field position they would've had if they simply took the touchback.
Priefer's thought process is that if they can break a big one, it will make what can be weaker starting field position worth it. That didn't happen last year, but it's still not a huge role to fill. It's so much more about blocking than it is the returner and the Browns have several capable players that can be put back there to do that job.
Punt return is the super important position because the goal of a punt return to is to create a first down on the return; get 10 yards to win the battle of field position.
Felton has excellent agility to be a shifty punt returner, who can be difficult to wrangle because he's so low to the ground. He doesn't have the raw speed Natson does, but he's also about 35 pounds heavier.
The gunner position is also more important than kick return and one the Browns must solve as Tavierre Thomas is now a member of the Houston Texans. Felton could competing for the role with Robert Jackson and fellow rookie Anthony Schwartz.
Anthony Schwartz, Wide Receiver
Schwartz is going to be utilized as a jet motion player as well as a deep threat on offense with borderline Olympic track speed. As great as that is and the hope is he can grow into it this season, he could become a real factor on special teams.
The hope is that Schwartz can become a gunner on punts and at least a safety on kickoffs.
If Schwartz can beat a block and fly down the field, he can force opponents to fair catch punts, limiting their return to nothing. If they do try to field it, he could potentially be on them fast enough to separate them from the ball and causing a turnover.
Because of just how fast Schwartz is, it would allow Jamie Gillan to let loose with his leg when he's punting from the Browns 30 yard-line and in, booming the ball without fearing he's going to out kick the coverage and yield a huge return, potentially a touchdown.
Gillan has a really strong leg, but he always has to be cognizant of how far he kicks the ball because giving the returner a runway is the best way to get beat. He still has to find a way to maximize his angle for hang time to enable Schwartz to get down there, but if it's the difference between being able to punt the 60 yards as opposed to 55 or 50, that's significant.
Since the goal of a punt return is to net a first down, the opposite is also true. If the combination of Gillan and Schwartz can eliminate the return and force them to field it deeper, that creates another avenue to win the field position game.
For the most part punters have eliminated the coffin corner style kick and simply use elevation to eliminate returns as much as possible, but it should also make it easier to feel confident kicking the ball down the middle of the field or one of the alleys.
Schwartz has a big opportunity to be an instant impact player without every touching the ball his rookie year. Being able to secure a gunner job is how that happens.
Elijah Lee, Linebacker
Lee was brought in as a waiver claim late in the year, but he's still a young, athletic linebacker who became part of the special teams unit. Despite being only 25 years old, Lee has already played four seasons in the NFL just like David Njoku. Both were selected in the 2017 NFL Draft.
The Browns also lost Tae Davis in free agency to the Houston Texans just as they did Thomas, so there's a major opportunity for Lee to step in and really be a featured player on multiple special teams units.
Lee is depth for the Browns linebacker group, but first and foremost, he was acquired to help with special teams. He has become a special teams professional, which could be useful for the Browns.
Unfortunately, due to injuries and COVID-19 issues, a player like Tavierre Thomas, who normally is almost entirely focused on special teams, had to be ready to contribute in the normal defense. In Thomas's case, he played in the slot for a number of games.
Between additional talent and fewer COVID-19 concerns, the Browns hope that they have more dedicated specials that can help change the results they had last year. Lee could be part of that movement and since he was acquired last year, he's been with the Browns the entire offseason process. That could also lead to better results. It needs to or the criticism will laid at the feet of Priefer.