The Browns will have to revise their plans at returner.
Receiver JoJo Natson, who returned punts and kickoffs in the first three games, suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament Sunday during the 34-20 win over Washington, was placed on injured reserve Monday and will miss the rest of the season.
Natson, who went to the University of Akron, was signed in free agency to a one-year, $1 million contract to revitalize a return game that generated little spark last year. He averaged 8.3 yards on three punt returns in the 2-1 start and had his first kickoff return Sunday for 31 yards.
Natson (5-foot-7, 153 pounds) was injured in the second quarter on a punt return. His right knee bent in an awkward way as he made a cut and he grabbed the knee after he went down. For his four-year career, he’s averaged 7.7 yards on punt returns and 20.9 on kickoffs.
“He was training down in South Florida when I was still down there so he was the first person on the team that I was able to meet,” rookie tight end Harrison Bryant said. “We built a great relationship. He is a great dude, an awesome returner. As you have seen with his past years and then this year, he is great at making people miss and picking up 10-15 yards, which helps a lot with offensive field position. That is just a huge blow for our team.”
Natson had also been used as a fourth receiver and a speed threat. He was often a decoy on jet sweep action, giving the defense something else to consider.
“Disappointed for him,” coach Kevin Stefanski said. “JoJo was doing a nice job for us on the offensive side.”
Rookie sixth-round pick Donovan Peoples-Jones seems like the natural replacement in the return game and as an extra wideout, but Stefanski said he’d discuss the options with special teams coordinator Mike Priefer. Peoples-Jones was a healthy scratch for the first three games, and running back D’Ernest Johnson replaced Natson as the returner against Washington.
“We have some candidates in the building,” Stefanski said. “That is something that I am going to sit down with Prief and talk through as this week unfolds of how we want to attack this.”
A SPECIAL SOUVENIR
Bryant won’t forget his one catch Sunday. The 3-yarder was the first NFL touchdown for the fourth-round pick.
“It was extremely exciting to just go out there, produce and do whatever I can to help the team win,” he said.
Baker Mayfield found him cutting across the end zone and put the ball right there for the catch. Bryant almost lost the souvenir.
“I spiked it and it kind of rolled off so it took me a minute to find it, but I was able to find it,” he said.
Bryant blamed himself for stopping on an in-breaking route on a third down in the second quarter, as Mayfield’s pass was out in front and fell incomplete. But Stefanski has been pleased with Bryant’s quick progression. He’s the No. 2 tight end to Austin Hooper, played 40 snaps Sunday, has three catches for 22 yards and has been solid as a blocker.
“We are putting a lot on his plate,” Stefanski said. “Fortunately for us, he studies very hard so he knows where he is supposed to be and does a nice job. He is coming along.”
Stefanski thinks cornerback Denzel Ward has a chance to play Sunday against the Cowboys. He was slowed by a groin injury suffered Thursday in practice and didn’t play in the second half against Washington.
“Hopeful that he will be able to work through it this week,” Stefanski said. “I do want to point out that there are a ton of guys that are fighting through these injuries, that are working their tails off to get out there on the practice field and make it to the game. I think that is a great testament to this team.”
** Linebacker Mack Wilson (knee) and cornerback Kevin Johnson (lacerated liver) made their season debuts after being sidelined for more than a month. Johnson played 38 of 65 defensive snaps, most in place of Ward, and Wilson played six.
“I would anticipate that both those guys and a lot of these guys coming back from injury will slowly but surely add to their rep totals,” Stefanski said.
** Linebacker/special teamer Tae Davis (elbow) will miss “some time.” He was hurt Sunday and didn’t return.
Rookie left tackle Jedrick Wills, the No. 10 pick, had two false starts in the first quarter.
“I think he was disappointed in those two penalties. I know I was,” Stefanski said. “I let him know that. That is part of this deal, you have to be great with the cadence. Those were two that he wants back. We can’t let that happen. We just have to make sure that we clean that up.
“Once he settled in, he played really solid football for us, but I do not want him to have to go through that to settle in.”
Receiver Odell Beckham Jr. had a modest four catches for 59 yards but had a significant impact on the outcome. All four catches went for first downs, he drew double coverage inside on Kareem Hunt’s 9-yard touchdown catch and Stefanski mentioned the blocking of him and all the receivers as the running backs gained 154 yards.
“Four catches, four huge plays,” Stefanski said.
The most important catch was a 15-yarder on third-and-12 late in the third quarter that extended what turned out to be the winning touchdown drive.
Linebacker Malcolm Smith got the second of three Browns interceptions by exploiting the inexperience of quarterback Dwayne Haskins.
“The receiver is there and the quarterback was kind of showing me his back, which is hard for him to kind of look you off when he shows you his back,” Smith said. “Just kind of locked on that spot and just trusting my experience versus his.”
** Linebacker Montrel Meander was cut, leaving the Browns with two open roster spots.