One of the Cleveland Browns‘ specialists has a serious problem on his hands, literally.
Second-year running back Demetric Felton secured his place on the roster by winning the job of punt returner during training camp. Cleveland brought in wide receiver and Pro Bowl return specialist Jakeem Grant to handle those duties, but he was knocked out with an Achilles’ tendon tear out before his year even began.
The job reverted back to Felton, but after just one game it is unclear if the youngster will be reliable enough to hold onto it for the long haul. He fielded five punts from the Carolina Panthers during a narrow Week 1 road victory, averaging 5.8 yards per return and logging a fumble.
The Browns were fortunate to recover said fumble, but that luck is sure to run out sooner than later if the problem persists, which history suggests is a likely outcome. Felton fumbled the football a total of four times during the course of the 2021 regular season, per statistics provided by ESPN.
Felton’s issues are under consideration in Cleveland, which drafted two rookies in 2022 who may soon compete for the crucial role of punt returner.
David Bell, Jerome Ford Options For Browns as Punt Returners
Zac Jackson of The Athletic confirmed as part of a mailbag on Thursday, September 15, that Felton’s job may already be in jeopardy, noting three potential replacements at punt returner including third-round rookie receiver David Bell and fifth-round rookie running back Jerome Ford.
The saga continues. Felton is the best option on the current active roster and he’ll probably keep his job this week. At least he might.
Ford is the kickoff returner, but Ford has no punt return experience. The Browns added Chester Rogers to the practice squad this week, and he’s an option. Practice squad rookie Mike Harley is also a down-the-road option, but it would be surprising to see Harley get the call now. Rogers has a lot of NFL experience doing it, but he’s not exactly Joshua Cribbs reincarnated.
The primary job of a punt returner is just to catch the ball. Felton seems like a great kid and the kind of player you want to keep around and develop because of his work ethic and versatility, but not knowing whether the punt returner is going to catch the ball is a dealbreaker. Maybe rookie David Bell would be an emergency option who would be asked to just securely use the fair catch signal and actually catch the ball.
Browns’ Further Integration of Ford, Bell is Logical Step Forward
Ford has no punt return experience, as Jackson noted, but neither did Felton when he stepped into that role for the Browns last season.
Ford suited up Sunday primarily to function in a special teams role, returning one kickoff for 29 yards, and also serving as the third running back behind Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Ford supplanted 2021 breakout player D’Ernest Johnson for that role after the latter was granted a new contract over the offseason.
It tracks logically that Cleveland would want to utilize Ford as much as possible if the franchise is willing to first shelve a quality performer like Johnson, then openly welcome trade offers for his services, because of how much team brass has bought into Ford.
The same rationale can be applied to Bell, the team’s first offensive selection of the most recent NFL Draft. Bell was projected as a starter in the Browns’ offense for much of camp. However, he dealt with injury issues throughout the preseason and lined up for just 22 offensive snaps on Sunday, making zero catches.
Getting Bell on the field more and acclimating the sure-handed receiver to catching flying footballs, either off of his quarterback’s arm or the opposing punter’s foot, potentially accomplishes two goals at once — creating opportunities for Bell to gain valuable in-game experiences while also cutting down on special teams turnovers that could cost Cleveland wins down the line.