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News & Notes: Browns evaluating number of candidates for punt, kick return

Cleveland lost return man JoJo Natson for the season after he suffered a knee injury

With Thursday's signing of WR Ryan Switzer to the practice squad, the Browns added another candidate to return kicks and punts as soon as Sunday's game against the Cowboys.

Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer on Thursday identified four options the team is considering in the wake of losing JoJo Natson, who handled both roles, for the season. Along with Switzer, who would need to be elevated to the active roster before Sunday, Priefer said RB D’Ernest Johnson, WR Donovan Peoples-Jones and RB Dontrell Hilliard were competing for the jobs.

"We have some candidates," Priefer said. "They are all different type returners than JoJo so we have to adjust a little bit of what we do, but that is why we are paid as coaches and players, and we have to go out and do our job." 

Among the four, Switzer has the most experience in both areas. The former Steelers return man has returned 67 punts for 537 yards and a score along with 63 kickoff returns for 1,373 yards since he entered the league as a fourth-round pick in 2017.

Priefer said Switzer's potential availability would depend on "how quickly we get him ready if we need him."

"We will put the best guy at either spot," Priefer said. "If it is the same guy, it is the same guy. If not, it will be different, obviously."

Peoples-Jones is the only member of the group who has never returned a punt or kick at the NFL level. The sixth-round rookie out of Michigan took two punts to the house during his college career but has been inactive for the first three games. He's drawn praise, though, from the progress he's shown on the practice field. 

"Being that we are in Big Ten country and he played in the Big Ten, that is pretty high-level football. He had 70 punt returns in his career so he has had the experience and been under that kind of pressure before," Priefer said. "Obviously, the NFL is the next step up. He has improved a lot since he has been here — tracking the ball and catching the ball. He is built like a kickoff returner, like we have mentioned before, but he has punt return experience. He is valuable in either phase."

Check out exclusive photos of the Browns preparing for their game against the Dallas Cowboys

Injury Update

G Joel Bitonio (back) and CB Denzel Ward (groin) returned to practice on a limited basis after missing Wednesday's session. RB Kareem Hunt (groin), LB Tae Davis (elbow) and DE Adrian Clayborn (hip) remained sidelined.

As far as his status for Sunday, Bitonio, who hasn't missed a snap in years, said he and the team would re-evaluate his prognosis after Thursday's practice.

"It popped up during the game, kind of early in the game. It just got a little unsettled there for me for a little bit," Bitonio said. "But when your adrenaline is going in the game and stuff like that, you just battle through that and find a way to get through it, then you wake up Monday morning, you do not feel very good. But we are working on it. We are going to go out there today and test it out a little bit and see how we are feeling."

Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said the team had options at its disposal if Hunt were unable to play Sunday.

"We have understudies, if you will," Stefanski said, referring to Johnson and Hilliard. "So, guys have to be ready to fill those roles. And then we will adjust, so we always have a plan. As we put the plan in, I should say, Monday, Tuesday, we are mindful of guys we may or may not have and then we have guys that have to be ready to step in should somebody not be available."

More Love for Chubb

Asked if he believes that soft-spoken RB Nick Chubb doesn't care where pundits rank him among the best in the NFL, WR Jarvis Landry provided a resounding "yes."

"He is not a guy that is in it for that," Landry said. "He comes in, comes to work, puts his hard hat on each and every day and comes out here and works just as hard as anybody on the field.

"If you watch him when he was mic'd up or if anybody else is mic'd up or anybody talks about Nick Chubb, he is never celebrating. It barely seems like he is excited about him scoring a touchdown, breaking a rushing record or whatever it is. I do not think he is in it for that. I think he just wants to win and do his job to the fullest."

Bitonio said he hasn't heard Chubb speak in the huddle once since joining the team in 2018.

"I think maybe he smiles for a couple minutes after we win a game and then he is back the same serious guy working and preparing for the next week," Bitonio said. "Kareem is a little bit more vocal out there. He is not afraid to dish it with the defensive players and let people know and he will try and hype up the o-line, like he is a vocal guy. He is probably one of the most vocal guys once we get in the huddle. And Chubb is literally the opposite. So it is fire and ice out there with those two."

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