The last of the three coordinators that had media availability before the Cleveland Browns went off for summer vacation was Mike Priefer, who is in charge of special teams. Nothing he said was terribly surprising as he confirmed a number of expected outcomes, but did provide some worthwhile details.
Almost immediately, Priefer was responding to a question regarding how bad the units was last year, ranking 28th in the NFL according to a data driven article written in the Dallas Morning News.
“We have a lot of improving to do. We need to improve our return game immensely. We started the season slow on kickoff coverage, and I thought we ended the season well. (Chief Strategy Officer) Paul DePodesta uses a formula that basically takes into account everything during a game, and he gives a point to every play with his analytics. I like that because when we played those three games in November, it was horrendous weather.
Obviously, it is easier to have better stats in [better conditions]. When I was in Minnesota, we played nine game a year indoors, including Detroit, so it was easier to have better net punt and do a better job on kickoff. I am not making excuses because the weather is the weather. I love the weather in Cleveland. I think we have that to our advantage.
I know we started slow, but we ended really, really strong. We won at least seven of the last eight games, including the playoff games. That is what I look for. Pridefully, would I like our stats to look better? Of course, and we need to do a better job across the board. That will be the constant message in training camp – constant improvement every single day, not so much to get the stats better but to put our team in position to win.” - Mike Priefer, Browns STs Coach
As is often forgotten, this is Paul DePodesta's primary role. Coming up with processes that help inform and streamline data, so that is it readable and useful.
Nevertheless, the Browns were pretty bad particularly early on in the season when it came to covering kickoffs. The return game was pretty dreadful all year. The one area where the Browns did have success was on blocked kicks. If nothing else, being able to continue that would be valuable. Teams that are able to block a punt or field goal win almost 90 percent of time.
Priefer was excited about the return of JoJo Natson, who was the team's one professional punt returner last year, who suffered a torn ACL. Natson only returned three punts in 2020, but averaged 8.3 yards per return, which isn't great for him, but the rest of the team averaged just 4.3.
“It was great to have (WR) JoJo (Natson) back. I think he is moving along really well. I know he is probably not totally 100 percent, but he is getting there. Obviously, he brings the quickness and explosion that we did not have when he got hurt last year."
“(Senior Vice President of Player Health and Development) Joe Sheehan and our medical staff have done a great job of getting him ready. He has worked extremely hard, and they have worked extremely hard with him. We just have to trust their judgment. If they say he is 100 percent, we are going to throw everything at him, get him in the preseason games and see what he can do.”
It's understandable that Priefer would be a huge fan of Natson. He was the team's best punt returner. Further, he signed with the Browns a second time after the ACL. The issue here is it's really difficult to see how Natson makes the final roster.
Nominally, he's a receiver as well, but the Browns drafted Anthony Schwartz that would do all of the receiver stuff Natson would do while being bigger, stronger and faster. The receiver room is more crowded and with more talent on the team overall, save for injuries, it's just difficult to see where the former Akron Zip finds a spot.
The other candidates that were mentioned as return options were also mentioned.
"(WR) Donovan (Peoples-Jones) has been around this week. He is catching punts. He has not caught punts since January, and he is catching them like he has been catching them every day. (RB) D’Ernest Johnson [is another guy]. (RB) Demetric Felton is a guy who we have back there working as a punt returner, as well. (WR) Ryan Switzer is another guy. We have a lot of competition. We have a lot of different types of skillsets. For me, it is a wide-open job so we are going to see what happens here down the road.”
The Browns have four other options they are at least considering for the job. Switzer spent last season on the team's practice squad. Donovan Peoples-Jones was an adventure returning punts as it was pretty terrifying the way he fielded them last year. However, if he can improve on that front, he can be dangerous as it was something he was able to do really well in college.
D'Ernest Johnson is the sneaky solid player that is hanging around for multiple spots. He can operate in several roles, including a running back with speed as well as returning punts and kicks.
The challenge for Johnson is he may be competing for a roster spot with Demetric Felton, who this team seems to adore. Offensively, he's as Alex Van Pelt put it, a running receiver back. For Priefer, he could be far more.
“They had me interview him probably a month or so before the draft. I really like Demetric’s attitude. I liked his intelligence. He has a great personality. He loves the game of football. Everything you are looking for in a young player. He has great quickness. I do not think he has tremendous speed, but he has good speed. What he needs to use are his strengths – use his quickness, use his ability to be a playmaker and use his ability to be very versatile.
I truly believe he has an opportunity to be a dual returner, and I truly believe he can help us as a gunner and on kickoff coverage because he has the right mindset, he likes the game, he is tough, he is available and he is accountable. I know the offense threw a lot at him this spring, and he has responded very well. We have done a lot of drill work with him. We are training him to be a dual returner. I am excited about his future. I really like Demetric.”
Is it possible that Felton doesn't do enough to make this team and is someone they try to put on the practice squad? It's possible, but this team seems to be enamored with all the things he can do.
The fact he was mentioned as a gunner was a little unexpected, but confirms the fact that so much of the 2021 NFL Draft had at least an eye towards special teams. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Tony Fields II, still dealing with a foot injury were not mentioned but they could be utilized on special teams. Anthony Schwartz probably will never be a returner, but he could be an excellent gunner.
"I would also like to use him as a gunner. I would also like to use him as an L1 or R1 on kickoffs. He has the mindset, he has the size and he certainly has the speed. He just has not done it so it is going to be new to him. Obviously, being out part of this spring has hurt him a little bit, but at the end of the day, we are going to get him ready because we know he is going to be there on gameday ready to roll.”
If the Browns get to a point where two of their draft picks can handle just the gunner jobs, it could not only ensure they make the team, but it could make it more difficult for others. From a roster standpoint, if Felton or Jones able to handle punt return duties, that could save them a spot to utilize somewhere else.
Priefer provided some insight into Cody Parkey. He also really talked up the guy competing for his job, Chase McLaughin, who was signed relatively recently.
“(K) Cody (Parkey), we asked him to get stronger this offseason because last offseason, we had the virus, and he did not want to go to the weight room – his wife was pregnant at the time, and he did not want to jeopardize anything and nobody knew what was going on, and I do not blame him. I think he lost some of that strength so when he showed up for camp [last year], he was not quite as strong as he had been. He put on seven or eight pounds of muscle. He looks really good. He is stronger. He is kicking off better. He feels more confident. He still has a little bit of work to do, and he has positioned himself very well for this competition."
This might explain why Parkey never attempted a 50+ yard field goal last year. Nevertheless, he was 10 of 11 in the 40s. The distance that gave him the most trouble was in the 30s along with extra points which are in that range. Parkey was 4 of 6 in on field goals, but missed four of 47 extra points.
(K) Chase (McLaughlin) is a young man who I really liked from Illinois a couple of years ago. He has bounced around the league, as you guys know. Chase provides great competition for Cody. They were very, very even this entire spring. Today was the only day we could do team [field goal] because we had all of our offensive line back. We did team today, and I think Chase was six for seven and Cody was five for seven, which we need to improve. I want them to be seven for seven to be honest with you across the board. It was a beautiful day today. It is going to be great competition. I think it is not so much field goals and PATs that probably take some more precedence, but kickoffs, as well. We need to improve our kickoffs, and the kicking part of our kickoffs needs to improve, as well.”
Priefer talks up McLaughlin a good amount. It's Parkey's job to lose, but the Browns thought highly enough of McLaughlin to release Matthew McCrane, who the team had on a reserve/futures contract to bring in McLaughlin. It's at least worth noting.