As Cleveland Browns fans, we all know points or at least touchdowns can be hard to come by, making our special teams unit more valuable. In close games, special teams can make or break a game. Kick or punt returns that result in big gains or even a touchdown can cause a momentum shift. Occasionally, contests come down to the wire and depend on one kick.

Therefore, the kicker should be the most valuable player on special teams. Once the Browns failed to retain their franchise kicker Phil Dawson, a tremendous void needed to be filled. Last season, veteran Billy Cundiff answered the call and resurrected his career. Cundiff cashed in a productive year, proving that the tank isn’t empty. Throughout the 2013 campaign, he converted 21/26 field goals (80%), his second best career year from an accuracy standpoint.

Despite lacking the reputation on the long kick, five field goals from 50+ yards from 2002-2012, Cundiff wasn’t fazed, connecting on two out of four this past season. During the Detroit Lions preseason game, he connected on field goals from 43, 26, 41, and 41 yards without missing a single attempt. Not to mention, the nine year pro dominated with a different kind of long ball, the kickoff. Touchbacks prevent the occurrence of a colossal gain and possibly a touchdown. Cundiff ranked fifth in the NFL, recording touchbacks on 64.6% of kickoffs.

While Billy Cundiff hopes to produce similar numbers, he isn’t the only player to utilize his foot. Spencer Lanning will retain the punting responsibilities. The University of South Carolina product won the job last year in training camp and played in all 16 games. It would be comforting to watch Lanning improve on his 2013 net punt average of 37.9 yards (ranked 28th), while maintaining his 11th ranked, 28 punts downed within the 20 yard line. He appeared improved in Detroit, with a 43.8 yard average on four punts, including two being downed inside the 20.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, the man currently listed as number one on the depth chart receiving kickoffs and punts is Travis Benjamin. In just eight games before his ACL injury, Benjamin returned 22 punts (257 yards, 1 touchdown) and three kickoffs (146 yards), including one that resulted in an 86 yard gain. Hopefully, the young wide receiver can showcase the burst of speed he expressed throughout his two years in the league. If the Florida native can remain on the field without knee problems, Cleveland return game can be a game changer.

Listed second and third on the depth chart for kick returning are veteran Buster Skrine and rookie Taylor Gabriel. Skrine is a surprising candidate due to the fact the cornerback hasn’t returned a kick since 2011. If the veteran earns extensive playing time, as a key defensive role player, it would be unnecessary to risk injury as a returner. Gabriel could get a legitimate shot to contribute on special teams. Preseason week one at Detroit, the wide receiver registered one return for 19 yards, however, he added 32 yards on two punts. An honorable consideration to compete for the job is Dion Lewis. The running back was the primary kick returner last year throughout training camp and preseason before breaking his leg.

Meanwhile listed as the second and third punt returners are safeties, Jordan Poyer and Jim Leonhard. After the devastating injury to Travis Benjamin, Poyer seized the punt returning duties. The second year pro recorded a higher average, 14.3 yards, than Benjamin on fewer attempts, eight. The youngster produced a small sample size, but flashed potential when presented the opportunity. In case of injury or under performance, Cleveland will hand the reigns to veteran Jim Leonhard. Throughout his career, the safety has returned over 100 punts, averaging 9.3 yards. Leonhard is more than capable handling these responsibilities. Although the defensive back isn’t the first option, his experience and leadership are valuable assets.

In conclusion, special teams may not be the most glamorous or coveted part of football, but it can be a game changer. Besides, how can you not love an exciting punt/kick return, full of jukes, blocks, and missed tackles resulting in a touchdown? Not to mention, regardless of how many points are scored, games can still be decided by a last second field goal.

– Max Gold

Images credited to: www.nflrush.com

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