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Browns Mailbag: Will this be the year Cleveland’s special teams turn the corner?

Breathe it in. Game week is finally here, and we’re just 48 hours (or less) away from the kickoff to the Browns’ 2019 season.

We made it. We really, really made it.

Let’s answer three questions to celebrate.

How much improvement do you expect to see in the special teams units this season? I know in past years we have ranked near the bottom of the league in the various special teams categories. Do we look like we might be at least mediocre, or perhaps top-10 range? -- Keith W., Ghent

Here’s the answer that applies to pretty much every aspect of the team at this point in the preseason: I don’t know. We’ll see when the games start to matter.

I will say this: I’m optimistic the group, as a whole, will be better and more disciplined than it has in years’ past. That’s been the trademark of the units led by Mike Priefer throughout his career, and there’s been an added emphasis on special teams drills during practice since Freddie Kitchens took over as head coach. There are a lot of new faces on the units -- some younger, some older -- and they’ll be asked to play the way Priefer wants -- soundly and within the parameters of what he’s asking.

“I think that we have a focus from our general manager, our personnel department and our head coach that I do not know if they have had here in years past before John (Dorsey) and Freddie (Kitchens) became GM and head coach, respectively,” Priefer said Thursday. “I do not know that for a fact. I do not want to speak for them because I am not going to criticize the people that were here before. I do know that we do have great attention to detail with our head coach ad attention to detail with our personnel department, starting with John, about the importance of special teams and how it can help us win games. Hopefully, we can carry that baton and be great on teams and on every phase. That is the goal.”

The perception of a team’s special teams units -- fairly or not -- fall on the performance of the specialists, and the Browns are entering the season with two rookies in those positions. Jamie Gillan and Austin Seibert have loads of potential and flashed it throughout the preseason. They’ll just be making their respective NFL debuts Sunday. That provides a certain level of unknown, but Priefer and Kitchens have both expressed their confidence in the pair. Priefer likes how Gillan and Seibert complement each other off the field, too.

“I am more tightly wound and I am closer to Austin in that regard,” Priefer said. “I think Jamie approaches his job with very good focus and he is a true pro. I think he is learning how to be a better pro by being around guys in our locker room that are good pros. They are good for each other. Jamie has been great. I think the good thing about him is that he might not get a good punt and it might be a below average punt, the next one he is going to bomb. He does not worry about what he did on the last one.”

Check out photos of the Browns 2019 captains - Baker Mayfield, Christian Kirksey, and Charley Hughlett

Are the Browns looking to add a tight end to complement their position group? Dwayne Allen is a veteran with experience that could help in the run blocking. -- Rob M., Charleston, West Virginia

The Browns added to the room Sunday when they claimed Ricky Seals-Jones via waivers from the Arizona Cardinals. Kitchens coached Seals-Jones, a former wide receiver at Texas A&M, in 2017. That connection shouldn’t be overlooked, but it might be a tall ask to expect a major impact right away.

“I know how athletic he is and the type of player he was for us in Arizona. I know what he has put on tape since then,” Kitchens said. “Anytime you have a knowledge of a player, it certainly helps.”

The Browns have four tight ends on the 53-man roster with another, Rico Gathers, on the reserve/suspended by commissioner list. Cleveland will have a decision to make when Gathers is eligible to return next week. For now, the Browns will roll with David Njoku, Demetrius Harris, Pharaoh Brown and Seals-Jones. Perhaps the biggest question with the group is who has the capability to play fullback on certain plays -- something Kitchens said he’d want from one of his tight ends during the preseason.

“I think Pharaoh can,” Kitchens said. “You are talking about different things when you start talking about the fullback position, but yeah, I think both of those guys can do what we would ask them to do.”

How long ‘til Mack Wilson is a starter? -- Mike S., Youngstown

There was a lot of excitement with Wilson throughout the preseason, and for good reason. The fifth-round pick out of Alabama made a number of plays, including a handful of interceptions, and looked like someone Cleveland can count on in 2019.

All that said, the Browns are banking on major production from their two veterans, Christian Kirksey and Joe Schobert, and they should be viewed as the entrenched starters.

“I am very impressed with what Joe and Christian have done,” defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said. “When you look back on some of the film from last year and some of the things they are doing this year, I love the physicality that Christian is playing with, Joe with his ball skills has been able to play out in space and those guys are doing a great job of playing downhill, which we emphasize a lot at our linebacker position.”

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