The NFL gunner is a position that is talked about some, but perhaps not enough to every fan to understand the position.
This article will take a look at the position, what it entails, and then will shift focus to the current debate regarding Cleveland Browns Pro Bowler Josh Cribbs and his possible role (or lack thereof) as the Browns' gunner.
What is a gunner?
To simplify the definition, a gunner is a special teams player who specializes in running down the sideline while avoiding would-be blockers to try and knife through all defenders and be the first to tackle the kick/punt returner of the opposing team.
Sometimes there is one gunner in a punt formation and other times there can be two, often lined up looking like a wide receiver in the punt formation.
In a kickoff formation, the gunner will either the be the last or second-to-last player from the end of the kickoff formation. Gunner positions can also vary, but these are traditionally the most likely spots for a gunner to line up on kicks and punts.
Gunners must also be very agile to be able to shed blocks from opposing defenders and be light on their feet to quickly change direction and change their angle to the returner.
Oftentimes in punt formations, opposing teams will line up two defenders per gunner in order to cause misdirection and throw the gunner off of any angle to get to the return.
There have been several great gunners in the past, including three-time Pro Bowl special teamer Larry Izzo and the Bills' Steve Tasker , who many consider the all-time greatest gunner in NFL history being a seven-time Pro Bowler.
In the modern day of the NFL, Cribbs is considered by many as the best all-around special teamer in the league, since he is an NFL record holder in kickoff returns for touchdowns and he had led the Browns in special teams tackles several times in his five-year NFL career.
Now the Browns have "Paid the Man," as Deion Sanders said many times, and Cribbs will be used more than ever in 2010 due to his increased salary.
If you get paid, you will be heavily played.
This poses the question of whether the Browns are overusing Cribbs and creating the possibility of wearing him out, which could cause his career to be shorter than every Browns fan would want.
Along those same lines, not playing Cribbs enough could be a reason to say that the Browns overpaid for him with his new contract.
Regardless of which way you look at it, Cribbs will be used on offense more than ever in his career this upcoming season. In light of this, he will have to sit out of plays in other areas where he was always on the field, starting with special teams.
The gunner position is the first one to highlight because the Browns do have one of the best special teams units in the NFL. They also have other strong gunners with Blake Costanzo and Ray Ventrone , both of whom should be able to make the final roster based on their special teams play as gunners.
Cribbs would obviously play a gunner in high pressure situations when the game is on the line because he has been one of the best gunners in the last few years, but that may be the only time Browns fans see him darting through blockers to nail an opposing returner.
Also, Cribbs may see less work in the punt return game, since he is a much stronger kick returner anyway.
The Browns may have to find another player to occasionally return punts in place of Cribbs . Who the other player will be remains to be seen and will hopefully be clearer once training camp practices begin.
At the end of the day, Cribbs will be an offensive weapon from many different positions and formations on offense as well as returning kicks. But with the added offensive snaps, don't expect to see Cribbs as a punt returner as much as he has been in the past, but much more than you will see him as a special teams gunner.
It should be fun once the regular season begins, because Cribbs is the new King of Cleveland and if there is one Cleveland sports player who will not disappoint, it is Cribbs.
(Also posted on Dawg Scooper: THE Cleveland Browns Blog)