October 23, 2014

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Browns: Special teams will look different this year

BEREA — Long snapper Christian Yount qualifies as a veteran on the Browns’ special teams.

He arrived for Week 13 in 2011.

The change that permeates the organization is obvious in the kicking game. Gone are Pro Bowl kicker Phil Dawson, Pro Bowl returner Joshua Cribbs, punter Reggie Hodges and core special teamers Ray “Bubba” Ventrone, Kaluka Maiava and Alex Smith.

In their place are question marks and worries.

“It’s different, you’re missing Phil and Bubba and guys like that,” Yount said Wednesday following minicamp practice. “It’s just how it goes. So you’ve got to find guys that can fill in. The guys in the room now are doing a great job to step up.”

The competition at kicker will receive the most attention for a couple of reasons. It’s easy to tell if he’s succeeding or failing, and Dawson’s shadow stretches all the way from his new home in San Francisco.

Dawson spent 14 seasons in Cleveland and was the only player left from the expansion season. He departed as the franchise leader in field goals (305) and field-goal percentage (84 percent), second in points (1,271) and third in games played (215).

He headed west to the 49ers in free agency. The choices to replace him are Brandon Bogotay and Shayne Graham. Bogotay was the backup to Blair Walsh of the Minnesota Vikings at the University of Georgia and has never kicked in an NFL game. Graham is a 12-year veteran who spent seven years with Cincinnati and made his last stop with the Texans, going 31-for-38 in 2012.

“They’re two different kickers,” Yount said. “One’s at the beginning and one’s been tested and been around. So it’s cool to have both sides on it.”

The competition likely won’t be decided until the preseason — the team could also bring in a castoff from another team at any point — but every kick counts. So it was worth noting the two-minute scenario at practice Wednesday.

Graham got the first shot and missed wide right from 55 yards, so the Browns lost by a point in the scenario. He was good on his next try, from 46 without a timeout to get set. Bogotay made both of his, from 54 and 51.

Coach Rob Chudzinski said Bogotay has the stronger leg.

“I try to focus on consistency, just hitting the ball solid,” Bogotay said. “If I hit the ball solid, it’s going to go straight.

“I try not to worry about a leg up in the competition, I try to take it kick by kick and however it falls out it falls out. Shayne is a great kicker and I’ve got a lot of respect for him. I’m trying to learn from his experience and take what I can get from him.”

Whoever makes the opening-day roster won’t be able to exhale. He will be constantly compared with Dawson, who missed only two kicks in 2012 and knew the cruel and unpredictable winds inside FirstEnergy Stadium better than anyone.

“I’ve known how popular Phil was before I ever came here,” Graham said. “I’ve always had a ton of respect for him and always gotten along really well with him. Phil did a great job here and I expect he’ll do a great job in San Francisco. My job is not to pick up where he left off, it’s not to fill his shoes, it’s to perform for this team now.

“My only control is to make kicks and hopefully those fans say the same positive things about me. That’s all I can think about. If I go out there thinking, ‘They might not like me as much as someone else,’ then I’m already defeated. So I can’t let that happen.”

The departure of Dawson would be enough of a transition, but the Browns are also dealing with their first season without Cribbs since 2004. They didn’t try to re-sign him as a free agent and he wound up in Oakland.

The Browns may need three men to fill Cribbs’ shoes.

Travis Benjamin is slated to return punts, an open tryout’s being held at kick returner and safety Johnson Bademosi appears the heir apparent as the No. 1 cover guy.

Benjamin might be the fastest guy on the team and returned a punt for a touchdown as a rookie last year. He’s also in the mix at kick returner but might not have the girth (5-foot-10, 175 pounds) to withstand the hits on kickoffs.

He isn’t worried about stepping into Cribbs’ spot.

“No pressure at all,” Benjamin said. “I’m just going out there and playing my style of football. I’m not worrying about who’s been here or who come after me, you just got to go out there and play you.”

Bademosi, cornerback Buster Skrine, running back Dion Lewis, Benjamin and receiver Mike Edwards are taking turns on kickoffs. Bademosi is a bit of a surprise after spending his rookie season last year as a premier coverage guy, but special teams coordinator Chris Tabor believes he has what it takes to be successful.

“I’m excited about it,” Bademosi said. “Tabor pulled me aside and was like, ‘I think you’d be a great kick returner, and I’m going to give you an opportunity there.’

“Seeing the way Cribbs did things last year, he was amazing. We’ve got a lot of guys back there doing it. It’s competitive and fun, and I can’t wait till I get to do it in the games.”

If all those changes weren’t enough, the Browns are also holding a punter competition between T.J. Conley and Spencer Lanning.

At least Tabor is still around, as he’s entering his third season with Cleveland.

“With a ton of changes, it’s nice to have that,” Yount said. “He’s a great, awesome coach and I absolutely love playing for him. I’m glad he’s still here.”

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.