Browns bolster special teams again by signing former Glenville star Justin Hardee

Apr. 2—The offseason has been good to Browns special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone, and with the draft plus the addition of undrafted rookies still to come later this month it could get even better.

The Browns on April 2 signed veteran cornerback Justin Hardee to a one-year contract. He might see some playing time in the secondary, but his main value will show up on punt and kick coverage.

Hardee, a graduate of Glenville High School in Cleveland, is in his eighth NFL season. He made the Pro Bowl in 2022 with the Jets when he made 14 special teams tackles. More notably, Hardee recovered the onside kick that helped enable the Jets to beat the Browns, 31-30, in the second game of 2022 after trailing, 30-17, with 1:55 to play. Quarterback Joe Flacco, now with the Colts, was the other Jets hero in that stunning comeback.

Early in the free agency process, the Browns signed running back Nyheim Hines. Just as Hardee can play on scrimmage downs as a defensive back, Hines can take a handoff and carry the ball (a combined 24 carries with the Colts and Bills last season), but his primary job will be as a return specialist. He returned 27 punts (264 yards) and 19 kicks (554 yards) for the Colts and Bills in 2023.

Two of Hines' kick returns with the Bills were for touchdowns last season. Hines, who played for Ventrone in Indianapolis when Bubba coached the Colts' special teams, returned two punts for touchdowns for the Colts in 2019.

Dustin Hopkins was an amazing 33 of 36 on field-goal tries for the Browns last season. He was 8-of-8 from 50 yards and beyond after connecting on only half — 15 of 30 — of his long-range kicks in the first eight years of his career with the Commanders and Chargers.

Hopkins will be the favorite to win the kicking job in training camp, but the Browns wanted to make sure he has legitimate competition, so they re-signed Cade York, whom they selected with a fourth-round pick in 2022 only to cut him at the end of training camp last summer.

York spent time on the practice squads of the Titans and Giants after being cut by the Browns. He suffered a quad injury in December while with the Giants and finished the season on injured reserve. York is only 23. He still has the physical tools that made the Browns invest the fourth-round pick on him, but he would have to demonstrate game pressure won't melt him again to land a job in the NFL. Hopkins kicked four game-winning field goals for the Browns last season.

Veteran sports writer Rick Gosselin uses an objective grading system in 22 categories involving all aspects of the kicking game to rank the league's 32 teams. If a team ranks first in a certain category, it gets one point. It gets 32 points for finishing last in a category. Each team would get a half-point if they tie in a category.

The 2023 Browns ranked 11th on the Gosselin Meter with 325.5 points. It was Ventrone's first year as special teams coordinator in Cleveland. The 2022 Browns under former special teams coordinator Mike Priefer were 18th with 378.5 points.