Jakeem Grant Sr. didn't come to Cleveland to take fair catches.
Grant, a 2021 Pro Bowler and two-time Second Team All-Pro selection, is hunting for touchdowns every time he has a return opportunity in 2022. He's not being sarcastic, either, or using the typical athlete cliche of wanting to make the most of every play — Grant genuinely wants to break records in his seventh NFL season and first year with the Browns.
"Whenever I return, I'm trying to change the statistics," Grant said. "I want the percentage of scoring a touchdown this year to go through the roof. I want people to be like, 'Oh, not even Devin (Hester) scored this many touchdowns in a season.' That's the goal of mine this year — to score more than four touchdowns on punt returns."
Four touchdowns in one season is a monumental task. Only four players — Jack Christiansen (1951), Rick Upchurch (1976), Hester (2011) and Patrick Peterson (2011) — have ever achieved the feat, but Grant believes he has a shot at joining that group this season because punt returning has never felt easier to him.
He's scored four punt return touchdowns since he entered the league in 2016, including one in each of the last two years. His 97-yard score in Week 14 against Green Bay was the longest return in the league last season, and his 11.9 average yards per return in 2021 was a career-best. Grant is at the top of his game and is appreciating football more than ever after his Pro Bowl year, one that started with the Dolphins and ended with the Bears after he was traded.
Now, he's in Cleveland. The Browns signed Grant in free agency to solidify both punt and kick return positions. Grant signed with Cleveland because he knows the Browns will trust him to play the position how he wants to play it: with aggression.
"That's how I am," Grant said. "To be a returner, you have to have some insanity. That's what I pride myself on. I'm just trying to do things that people aren't bold enough to do."
Check out photos of players and coaches working throughout the offseason
Grant hasn't always been a confident returner.
When he first started the position in 2016 with the Dolphins, he had little confidence at all. The Dolphins drafted him in the sixth-round and thought the gifted skills he showcased at Texas Tech, where he remains the program record-holder with 3,286 receiving yards, would translate to punt returns. Grant is 5-foot-7 and only had experience as a kick returner in college, and he learned quickly that catching punts are a different beast.
His experience started with reps from a JUGS machine, which shot the ball into the air perfectly every time and became an easy exercise. But in the first punt of his first preseason game, he didn't catch it. He couldn't. He let the ball hit the turf and roll to the 7-yard line before returning to the bench to an angry Darren Rizzi, the Dolphins' special teams coordinator.
"He was probably as red as I had ever seen everybody," Grant said. "I was like, 'Coach, I'm not going to lie, I was scared. I was nervous.' I felt like I had to go to the bathroom because my stomach was in knots."
After he cooled down, Rizzi assured Grant would be OK as long as he caught the ball and ran. The tacklers running full speed were not going to drill him before he caught the ball. When he did catch it, he was elusive enough to break a few tackles and create a big play.
That's precisely what happened a few punts later. Grant spun a 28-yard return later in the game, a minuscule, forgotten preseason play that helped spark his confidence at the position. He was handed returning duties for the regular season and slowly grew more comfortable, finishing the year with 20 returns, one touchdown, 8.3 yards per return … and four fumbles.
Grant had a major area to improve in, but the promise was there.
"I muffed so many punts when I was a rookie," he said. "It was my first time doing it, and I was so worried about it. I thought I had to make a big impact to show the coaches I can survive in this league. Most of the time, it was me being inside my own head."
Grant's grip on the ball strengthened over the next five seasons, and so did his production. He's scored punt return touchdowns in all but two of his six NFL seasons and has never had more than three fumbles in a season since. The Bears gave Grant a "green light" to approach every play how he felt was best, and he became even more dangerous, averaging a stellar 15.4 yards per return in Chicago.
"That was it," he said. "Now, I'm a very aggressive returner."
The light is still green for him in Cleveland, although he'll have a new challenge.
Almost immediately after Grant arrived in Cleveland, special teams coordinator Mike Priefer told Grant to switch where he holds the football. Grant has held the ball on his right side his whole career because it's what felt natural to him, but squeezing it in his left side allows him to use the right hand for stiff arms.
Grant is still acclimating to the new look a couple months later, but he knows the change will pay off.
"I never looked at it like that," Grant said. "That's why I love being around Coach Prief. He's critiquing little things like that. Nobody knew that putting the ball in your left hand could lead to a touchdown or an extra 15, 20 yards."
Grant will have an opportunity to impact the offense, too. He's one of the candidates the Browns are considering for a possible slot receiver role, and he feels as though he's discovered a new gear as a pass-catcher after scoring two touchdowns and totaling 139 yards on nine receptions in his 11 games with the Bears after he was traded last season.
"When I got to Chicago, they actually viewed me as a receiver," he said, "and as soon as I got the playbook down, I was scoring touchdowns. It was insane. All my hard work was paying off."
Grant knows his biggest opportunities, though, will come when the ball is being delivered from a punter's foot. He's made his living in the league by dodging tackles and flipping the field for the offense with one big return after another.
This season, his goals rest on just one spot on the field: the end zone.
"Every return, I'm thinking 'house.'"