The Browns just finished another double-digit loss season and questions abound throughout the roster. Are the Browns heading in the right direction? Do the Browns have a core to build around?
The OBR is breaking down the Browns current roster position-by-position. In the final in the series, we will take a look at the specialists.
It wasn't too long ago the Browns special teams were considered the strength of the team. Phil Dawson was one of the most consistent kickers in the NFL, while Reggie Hodges had such a strong season in 2010 the Browns opted to let Dave Zastudil go during last season. Long snapper Ryan Pontbriand made the Pro Bowl after the 2007 and 2008 seasons. Besides those three positions, Josh Cribbs made the Pro Bowl as a special team performer.
After the 2010 season, Dawson was slated to become an unrestricted free agent. Dawson moved his family back to Texas and prepared to continue playing elsewhere. The Browns, in a mild surprise, used the franchise tag for the first time since 1999 and retained Dawson in 2011 as the team's franchise player.
The Browns enter the 2012 league year in a similar situation as Dawson is once-again due to become a free agent unless the Browns sign him to a long-term contract or franchise him again. Dawson had another good season as he hit 24-of-29 field goals and all 20 of his extra point attempts for a team-leading 92 points. Dawson hit 7-of-8 attempts from 50 or more yards out to tie for the NFL lead in that category. Two of his misses were on bad snaps, including a potential game-winner against the Rams in the waning seconds.
Dawson has been the team's MVP over the 13 seasons since the Browns returned in 1999. He has accomplished much in his career and stands as the second all-time leading scorer in team history with 1,155 points. He passed Don Cockroft during the 2011 season. Only Lou Groza has scored more points (1,349) than Dawson and Groza did so in 17 seasons. If Dawson were to return to the Browns, at his current pace, he could pass Groza in two or three more seasons.
After the Browns decided to let Zastudil go during the 2010 season, the Browns signed Hodges to a long-term contract. However, during one of the first practices of training camp, Hodges was lost for the season with a torn Achilles tendon. Hodges spoke after the season and said he was on schedule in his recovery and expects to be full go for the 2012 season. He feels he will be ready for the Browns off-season program which begins in April. Hodges averaged 43.9 yards per punt in 2010 with 29 punts inside the 20.
Brad Maynard came to the rescue after Reggie Hodges and Richmond McGee went down with injuries. Maynard punted 81 times for a 40.5 average. Maynard had 32 punts inside the 20 with a long of 63 yards. Maynard did a great job as a holder as he was able to take several bad snaps and get the ball down to give Dawson a chance to kick the ball. Maynard, who will turn 38 on Feb. 9, just finished his 15th NFL season.
McGee was signed after Hodges was injured and played in just one game. In the season opener, he punted eight times for a net average of just 31.6. He complained of a sore back and he was placed on injured reserve the following week.
At long snapper, Pontbriand was a steady performer for the Browns for nine seasons, but lost his touch during the 2011 season. He cost the Browns a win against the Rams when he bounced a snap back to Maynard as Dawson lined up for a chip shot field goal to win the game. Unfortunately, the long snapper is never noticed until he messes up and that's what happened to Pontbriand this past year.
Christian Yount was signed to replace Pontbriand on Nov. 29 and played in the final five games with the Browns. Yount was the Buccaneer's long snapper for the first seven games of the season. The biggest news with Yount playing for the Browns is that there were no costly bad snaps during that time.
Bottom Line: Dawson is one of the biggest questions facing the Browns, whether to extend him, franchise him or head in another direction. Dawson just turned 37, but said he was "just getting started". Pat Shurmur called Dawson a "stud" during the season and his record-setting season with seven field goals from 50 plus yards out proved he's still got the leg.
The Browns should sign Dawson to a multi-year contract so he can finish his career with the Browns and pass Groza as the all-time leading scorer. If not, one of the priorities would be to find a new kicker who can do so in the wind and cold of Northern Ohio.
Hodges appears to be ready to resume his career after missing the season. Yount appeared to do a good job snapping the ball in his time and will most likely return for those duties.