The Browns’ OTAs and minicamp featured a logjam of players from a variety of positions showing what they can do on punt and kick returns.
That’s exactly the way special teams coordinator Amos Jones wanted it. The competition will continue at training camp, but the early returns were promising.
“You can have three guys back on the kickoff now so you better have six or seven guys that can catch a kickoff to get you through a game,” said Jones, referencing an offseason adjustment to the league’s kickoff rules. “We have taken everybody that has had a résumé – be it college with the rookies or veterans in this league that we have signed – anybody that can catch a kick, we have caught it. Same thing with the punt side of it from that standpoint.”
Jabrill Peppers, who carried the load through most of 2017 on punts and split time with Matthew Dayes on kicks, is back in the thick of things at both spots. The optimism surrounding the second-year safety is high after a rookie year in which he struggled a bit to adjust to the subtle differences of returning punts in the NFL as compared to college.
The Browns finished 29th in the NFL with an average of 5.8 yards per punt return. Peppers returned all but eight of them.
“He definitely still has the juice,” said former Browns returner Josh Cribbs, who is serving as an intern on the special teams staff. “He has a lot within him. He is a bigger-type returner. I am excited about him. I was excited about joining the staff just because of him in one aspect.
“For him, it is just hitting it vertical, having a progression on the punt returns, knowing when and when not to call a fair catch, trusting the scheme that is being called and the rest is going out there and playing football.”
Perhaps the biggest source of competition will come from one of the Browns’ newest faces, fourth-round rookie wide receiver Antonio Callaway. In his two seasons at Florida, Callaway averaged 12.1 yards on punt returns and 29.3 on kicks. He had three special teams touchdowns, including an 85-yarder on a punt in 2015.
Callaway was sidelined with a groin injury during minicamp but had already left quite an impression on those who will be deciding the rotation.
“He’s sticking his foot into the ground and running vertical,” Jones said. “The things you saw him do at the University of Florida, which was catch the ball, extremely comfortable with getting underneath of the ball and catching it and being able to stick a foot into the ground and get vertical. We labeled it as running as if he is a running back. Those are the big plays that you see him being able to make.”
A number of others are sure to be involved until Jones settles on his rotation. Pro Bowl wide receiver Jarvis Landry, cornerback Terrance Mitchell, Dayes, undrafted rookie Evan Berry -- the younger brother of All-Pro safety Eric Berry who broke kickoff returns at Tennessee -- and a slew of others have taken their turns at practice. Jones said he’s been approached by a number of others who want a shot, and he hasn’t turned any of them away.
“Shoot, we will work a bunch of guys out there,” Jones said. “We are excited obviously about having Jabrill as a big play threat and Callaway as a guy that we drafted to kind of help us in that area.”