What's Next for the Cleveland Browns' Special Teams in 2013?
Two of the most beloved players of the modern era in Cleveland Browns football will not be wearing an orange helmet in 2013. And they both happen to be on special teams.
A team strength a year ago is now a unit filled with holes, as kicker Phil Dawson and returner Joshua Cribbs are leaving Northeast Ohio. Throw in the need for a punter and the question becomes, what's next for the Browns' special teams?
Despite the outcry from fans to keep these legendary figures, the club's front office took an unemotional approach that specifically focused on the future.
Should the Browns have re-signed:
"We’re building, right?” Haslam said. “So I think you have to look at where people are in their career and who fits best and who doesn’t. Why did we like [recent free-agent acquisitions] Paul [Kruger] and Desmond [Bryant] so much? Not only are they good players, how old are they? Twenty-six, 27, right?”
Signing players in their prime makes perfect sense, but let's look at the key individuals that CEO Joe Banner must replace.
Phil Dawson (K)
A first-time Pro Bowl invitee this past season, "Phil the Foot" put up his best numbers in 14 campaigns with the Browns.
Connecting on 29 of 31 field-goal attempts in 2012, seven of which were from 50 yards or more, Dawson hardly looked like a man in the supposed twilight of his career.
The 38-year-old became legendary for obsessing over weather conditions and successfully adapting to any circumstance that the wild Lake Eerie winds threw his way.
No. 4 was a mere 78 points shy of breaking the franchise record for total points scored (1,349) and already owned the most field goals in Cleveland history (305).
However, the past administration was unable to ink Dawson to a long-term contract, which resulted in back-to-back uses of the franchise tag.
Maybe the kicker wanted a chance at a championship before he hung up the cleats. He'll get that opportunity with his new group in San Francisco.
The Texas resident was a class act to the end, as he requested from the 49ers' public relations staff a conference call for the Cleveland media to say goodbye.
Dawson also reached out to the Dawg Pound via Twitter:
Hey, Cleveland. Thank you for a tremendous ride. Your love, support & encouragement have blessed me deeply.— Phil Dawson (@phil_dawson_4) March 19, 2013
Joshua Cribbs (KR/WR)
Injuries, fumbles and turning 30 all added up to Josh Cribbs being sent out into the open market.
To call No. 16 a fan favorite would be a gross understatement. Since signing as an undrafted free agent in 2005, he has been the face of this team and is deeply involved in the community.
The city loves Josh and he loves the city.
We all know that sentiment has no place in the business-first NFL, and although the kick/punt return yard totals were strong in 2012, Cribbs simply is not explosive enough anymore.
Yes, the former Kent State quarterback remains a phenomenal defender on special teams, but he is around for the returning abilities.
In that department, Cribbs hasn't taken a kick back for a score since 2009 and, rightly or wrongly, was never utilized on offense as much as he would've liked.
A touching tweet and Instagram photo summed up Cribbs' passion for Cleveland:
It's been a blessing to be in Cleveland, wishing the best to the city & the Team. If I could stay I… instagr.am/p/W0go4DtItb/— Josh Cribbs (@JoshCribbs16) March 14, 2013
As long as the Washington, D.C., native's knee fully recovers from offseason surgery, he will surely end up somewhere.
Now that everyone has a tear in their eye, let's look at possible answers.
Kicker and Punter
Cincinnati's Mike Nugent was the only real free-agent kicker of note, and the Bengals locked him up with a multi-year deal.
The Browns did sign punter Spencer Lanning, who was beaten out in training camp last August by the almost-definitely none-returning veteran, Reggie Hodges. If someone wants to look up Lanning's past NFL statistics don't bother...there aren't any.
This means that each area will need to be resolved through the draft or undrafted free agents. Plural is the key here, as promoting competition is the only way to try and find that next diamond in the rough.
Remember folks, Phil Dawson was never drafted...
Travis Benjamin is the obvious heir apparent to Josh Cribbs in the return game. His blazing 93-yard punt run back in 2012 wowed spectators; however, can he handle the wear and tear of that role?
Benjamin is a tiny 175 pounds, missed a couple of matchups with a hamstring injury as a rookie and in general seems too fragile to handle full-time special teams duties. The Browns also want to keep him fresh so the speedy sophomore can continue to contribute effectively as a receiver.
Several of the more noteworthy free agents who could've filled this void, such as Ted Ginn Jr., are gone. Even if Banner doesn't address this in any capacity, there are a pair of options currently on the roster.
First, Jordan Norwood's slender frame puts him in a similar situation as Benjamin. The 26-year-old possesses impressive quickness and can be elusive in open space.
He is also injury-prone. Appearing in only two contests in 2012, Norwood showed promise as an effective slot receiver (13 catches for 137 yards). However, the physicality of playing underneath really took its toll.
Being re-signed this offseason gives hope that the Penn State alum can earn some chances to contribute. Mixing in Norwood and Benjamin as kick/punt returners and on offense would allow both talented youngsters to stay fresh.
Second, Buster Skrine is going to be battling for playing opportunities since the front office brought in free-agent cornerbacks Chris Owens and Kevin Barnes for depth/backup roles.
Skrine is generously listed at 5'9", but is lightening fast and agile. If he is not getting enough reps in the secondary, perhaps No. 22 can contribute on special teams.
This would again be a splitting of time with Benjamin and should cut down on injuries.
The Cleveland brain trust is working in overdrive as the draft rapidly approaches. Cross your fingers Browns faithful that the importance of special teams does not get lost in the shuffle of higher profile positions.
Follow Andy McNamara on Twitter @AndyMc81
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