The countdown 'til training camp is on.
In two weeks, the Browns will be back in Berea for five weeks of practices, meetings and preparations for the 2021 season — one that's filled with hype following several key additions to the defense and little changes to an offense that thrived in 2020.
We're examining each position on the roster as Day 1 of camp nears and continuing with the special teams, which will have three veterans on kicking duties and one of the biggest training camp competitions at returner.
What we know:Parkey and Gillan gave the Browns two solid kicking options that helped them advance to the playoffs last season. Once they got there, Parkey was perfect — he nailed all eight extra-point kicks in the postseason as well as all three field goal attempts. Gillan's average punting distance regressed from 46 yards his rookie year to 44 last season, but he still has plenty of room for more kicking power at just 24 years old. At returner, Natson re-joins the roster after suffering a season-ending knee injury last year, but he'll have competition from the two returner incumbents from last season, Johnson and Peoples-Jones. Felton, a 2021 sixth-round pick, has return experience from UCLA and will be in the mix, while Switzer has split time at both punt and kick returns across three NFL seasons.
What we don't know:We certainly don't know who will be the punt or kick returner yet. The Browns have plenty of attractive options, though, and special teams coordinator Mike Priefer even suggested possibly giving third-round rookie Anthony Schwartz, one of the fastest players of the draft class, a shot at returning, too. Natson was the frontrunner for both kick and punt return jobs last year and won both to start the season, but he'll have more competition for those jobs this season. As for the kickers, will Parkey and Gillan both be able to meet their expectations to improve this season? Reps on the practice field at training camp will reveal early answers.
The X-Factor: Natson. Judging by last season, the Browns believe he could reclaim both kick and punt return duties this year. But if he doesn't, what happens next? Would Johnson be the kick returner — and would the Browns be open to carrying four running backs (Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, Felton, Johnson) if that scenario occurs? Who would emerge as the punt returner? The competition carries immense roster value for all candidates, and Natson's performance in training camp will be especially appealing as the player who won the battles last season.
The biggest number:9. That's how many field goals Parkey made in the second half of last season in 11 attempts. Despite some struggles with extra-points, he delivered field goals in several clutch moments in the second half of the year, which helped set up his perfect performance in the playoffs.
Says it all:"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. 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." - Priefer