BEREA, Ohio — Browns Pro Bowl return specialist Jakeem Grant Sr. stood at the podium on Sunday, vowing to be much more than a returner here this season.
His personality was just as dynamic as his punt and kick returns have been over the years, with six taken back for touchdowns since 2016 when the Dolphins drafted him in the sixth round out of Texas Tech.
On Tuesday, those big plans for the 2022 season were dashed when he was carted off early in practice with a torn left Achilles that will likely soon require season-ending surgery.
“I really feel awful for Jakeem,’’ coach Kevin Stefanski said in a statement after practice. “We’ve witnessed how hard the young man has worked since he got to our team. We all realize injuries are a part of our game but that doesn’t make it any easier to accept especially for someone that works as hard and carries himself like Jakeem.”
It happened during a one-on-one-drill against cornerback A.J. Green when they both went up for the ball. Grant appeared to come down awkwardly on the leg with minimal contact from Green.
He grimaced on the field while trainers checked his lower leg, and it had the look of a season-ending injury. He held his head in his hands on the ride into the field house, and it was evident he might be done for the year. He had an MRI to confirm the injury Tuesday night, but the worst was already feared.
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It was the second time Grant has injured the same Achilles, the first time coming in 2018 when he hurt it in Week 10 and underwent season-ending surgery. That time, it wasn’t a full tear, and he didn’t need the major repair he’ll undergo this time.
The surgery, which third-year safety Grant Delpit had during training camp in 2020, takes about a full year to come back from — and Grant will be 30 in October.
He’s the second Browns receiver to suffer a season-ending injury this season. The first was undrafted rookie Isaiah Weston, who suffered a torn ACL and meniscus early in camp and was placed on injured reserve.
But that’s not all. The Browns have suffered a rash of injuries to their receivers this camp, and have had to bolster the spot with young prospects. Third-round pick David Bell suffered a stress fracture in his foot likely during minicamp and is just getting back. Anthony Schwartz suffered a knee injury and has also been back for just a few days.
Sixth-round pick Michael Woods II, the best young offensive player in camp through the first week, suffered a hamstring injury last week and will miss some time, Stefanski said.
The injuries opened the door for Grant, who stands 5-foot-6, to prove he’s more than just an electrifying returner. He was in the midst of an excellent camp and making a case for playing time on offense.
“Absolutely,’’ he said. “I always preach that I’m a receiver first before a returner, and I’m going to continue to preach that message, and I’m going to continue to work on that until I get that opportunity to have that breakout season.’’
Thanks to his size, “I automatically get pigeonholed as a returner. I don’t think nothing of it, I just let it to go the back of my mind and continue to work on my receiver game. And every opportunity I get, I capitalize on it.’’
His recipe for success is “be a jitterbug, man. Just not get hit. What I always pride myself on is you can’t hit what you can’t catch, so if they can’t catch me, they can’t hit me.’’
No one was happier than special teams coordinator Mike Priefer when the Browns signed Grant to a three-year free agent deal worth up to $13.8 million in the offseason. And no one’s heart probably sank more to see him carted off. The Browns haven’t had a kick returned for a TD since 2015, and Grant was just the man to end the drought.
“It was extremely important (to sign him),’’ Priefer said this week. “I’ve wanted to get Jakeem here the past couple years, he’s been free and Andrew (Berry) went out and got him and I’m really happy about that. That’s going to transform our return game. … it’s about field position and Jakeem adds that element that you can get a big play with him because he’s so talented.’’
With Grant out, the Browns will have to divide up the return duties among Donovan Peoples-Jones, Demetric Felton, Anthony Schwartz, D’Ernest Johnson and others. They’ll also likely keep their eyes open for returners to shake free in the roster cuts Aug. 30th.
But the loss of Grant, their small but mighty Pro Bowler, is a huge blow.
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