The final grades are in! After evaluating the entire Cleveland Browns offense and defense, WFNY finishes the 2017 season report card series with the special teams.
The Browns had a big change this season on special teams. The team drafted Zane Gonzalez with their first seventh round pick of the 2017 NFL Draft. Gonzalez replaced Cody Parkey as the team’s primary kicker. Britton Colquitt remained at punter for the 2017 season, while Charley Hughlett came back as the Browns’ long snapper.
So, how did the Browns special teams perform in 2017? Here are my 2017 season grades for the Browns special teams unit.
Overall Grade: C-
Britton Colquitt: B+
80 punts with a 47.6 yards per punt average, 24 punts landing inside the 20-yard line and two touchbacks
Zane Gonzalez: C+
15 of 20 field goals; 56 kickoffs with 33 touchbacks
Charley Hughlett: N/A
Top Grade: Britton Colquitt
Britton Colquitt had another good year for the Browns. He was fifth in the league in punt average, booming punts 47.6 yards per punt. He also tied for eighth in the league in fewest touchbacks with just two total punts that went for touchbacks. Colquitt set the Browns record for net punting average for second consecutive season, netting a 40.6 yards average. He was used a lot for the Browns and had a solid season to earn him another year as the Browns punter.
Biggest Strength: Special Teams exclusive personnel
I think the Browns biggest strength on special teams is their special teams exclusive personnel, meaning punter Britton Colquitt, kicker Zane Gonzalez and long snapper Charley Hughlett. I think these three are good starting quality special teams players. As I said earlier, Colquitt had a good year in a heavy usage role. Zane Gonzalez started off struggling, but late in the season he got in a pretty good groove, showing the talent that earned him a pick in the draft. Charley Hughlett is the Browns long snapper. You probably have not heard of him and that is good because it means he did not have a bad snap or a mistake this season. These three are good starters.
Biggest Need: Coverage Teams
The Browns coverage teams were a disaster last season. On kickoff returns, the Browns allowed an average of 23.6 yards per return, which was fifth worst in the league. On punt returns, the Browns allowed an average of 10.7 yards per return, which was the third worst in the league. The Browns also allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown. The Browns need to reorganize their coverage teams and get some new players in there to improve this area. The departure of special teams Chris Tabor was a good start.
The Cleveland Browns special teams are difficult to evaluate. The actual exclusive special teams player, Britton Colquitt, Zane Gonzalez and Charley Hughlett, are good players. Colquitt and Hughlett had good seasons, while Gonzalez improved as the season went on. I have high expectations for Gonzalez, knowing he has the talent to be one of the best kickers in the league. But, the rest of the Browns special teams were not good, which is why I gave a lower grade for the overall special teams. The coverage teams, as I noted earlier, were horrid and one of the worst units in the league. The Browns returners were a mix bag. Jabrill Peppers was supposed to be a huge weapon as the punt and kick returner, but he greatly underperformed. Peppers and the rest of the punt returners produced very little for the Browns. But, the Browns did find a bright spot in kickoff returns, running back Matthew Dayes. He had a kickoff return average of 24.3 yards per return, which is eighth best in the league amongst the 21 players with at least 15 kickoff returns.
Going forward, the Browns are set, in my opinion, at punter, kicker and long snapper. The biggest adjustments will come on the coverage teams and return teams. With Amos Jones taking over as special teams coordinator, the Browns must improve in these areas. Whether its new philosophies or new players, the coverage teams need to be better. At returner, the Browns need to go with Dayes as the kickoff returner and ditch the idea of Peppers as both returners. It seemed to be too much for him. Let Peppers stay as the punt returner and focus on that. The Browns have the personnel to be a better special teams unit next season.
Zane Gonzalez will make the Pro Bowl next season.