Browns

Cleveland Browns 2016 season position review: Offensive Line

Ron Schwane / AP Photo

The Browns offensive line might be the most controversial position on the team besides the quarterback spot. It is a position that has been critiqued differently by each person you ask. The Browns starting line at the beginning of the season was Joe Thomas at left tackle, Joel Bitonio at left guard, Cameron Erving at center, John Greco at right guard and Austin Pasztor at right tackle. But, injuries hit the offensive line, giving Spencer Drango, Shon Coleman, Austin Reiter, Anthony Fabiano and Alvin Bailey playing time this season. Let’s examine the offensive line and how they fared this season and what the position needs to do going forward.

2016 Browns Position Reviews: Quarterback, Running Back, Wide Receiver

Offensive Linemen on the roster: Joe Thomas, Joel Bitonio, Shon Coleman, Spencer Drango, Cameron Erving, John Greco, Austin Pasztor, Austin Reiter, Anthony Fabiano, Alvin Bailey, Zach Sterup and Gabe Ikard.

Overview

Joe Thomas continued his Hall of Fame career this past season with another Pro Bowl level performance. Thomas has the steady, unyielding force blocking for the ever-revolving quarterback position. He may not be at peak performance anymore, but he is still one of the best left tackles in the league. There are no worries about the left tackle spot with Joe Thomas.

Next to Thomas is left guard Joel Bitonio. Performance-wise, Bitonio is an athletic mauler, who plays well in pass and run blocking situations. He forms a really good left side with Joe Thomas. This season he performed well again, but his season was cut to just five games after suffering a foot injury. This is the second straight season Bitonio has missed games with injuries. He has the talent, but his health is becoming a troubling factor in reliability to the Browns. The lisfranc surgery that Bitonio received in October generally has a yearlong rehabilitation, but the Browns have thus far stated he is expected back Week 1 of 2017.

At center, Cameron Erving struggled in his second season in the NFL. After being forced into early action last year, Erving showed some improvement this season at the center spot. But, he still struggles with his technique. He struggles in space sometimes over-pursuing a defender, which leads to him falling off blocks and allowing defenders past him. He is also very young at the center position, so he still learning the nuances of the position. Erving has great athletic ability with movement skills and fluidity, but he is still so raw. His standing with the team could be in doubt if the team cannot wait any longer for his development. I would look to move on from him.

John Greco has been one of the steady forces for the Browns offensive line at right guard. He has the second longest tenure on the line behind Joe Thomas. This past season, he played solidly. He is another athletic lineman, who uses positioning to win at the line of scrimmage. He is far from the problem on the line, but he is getting older, so a young replacement could be found this offseason. I would keep him there until he loses his quality performance level. The issue is that his lisfranc surgery was in December, which puts his entire 2017 season in doubt.

Austin Pasztor started all season at right tackle, except for the season finale where he moved inside to right guard. He is a strong mauler of a lineman. He was forced into the right tackle starting spot with Mitchell Schwartz leaving in free agency. He was up and down at right tackle, but he is not the future at the position. He fits better at guard and right now the two guard spots are taken. He is an unrestricted free agent this offseason, but I believe should re-sign to be a valuable backup. He can play multiple positions and once John Greco needs replacing, Pasztor could take over right guard. But, he is not a right tackle.

Shon Coleman might be the future at right tackle, and we saw a glimpse of it in the season finale. He has the size, strength and athletic ability that coaches want in an offensive tackle. He finally got his shot in the season finale and he performed pretty well. This offseason will be big for him because next season I would look to him to be the starting right tackle. He could be the key cog at turning the offensive line back into a really good unit.

Spencer Drango was thrust into early playing time at left guard after the team lost Joel Bitonio for the season. Drango is a road grader, but he struggles with his movement skills and pass blocking skills. He struggled during the season and that is not a surprise from a fifth round draft pick. I think Drango is not a starting lineman in the NFL, but he can be a serviceable backup and extra lineman for the team.

Austin Reiter played one game at center this season, but he tore his ACL in that game giving the Browns very little tape to evaluate his play. Anthony Fabiano started one game at center this season, so the evaluation of him is also tough. With Cameron Erving continuing to struggle at center, these two linemen could have a chance to beat Erving out next season for the starting center spot.

Alvin Bailey started five games for the Browns between both left and right guard. He did not play well. He struggled and has shown that he is nothing more than a backup. His status with the team going forward is highly unlikely. Zach Sterup and Gabe Ikard did not see the field this season and are likely not part of the future.

The Browns offensive line was much maligned this season and for a lot of it rightfully so. Joe Thomas was the only consistent lineman on the team. John Greco and Joe Bitonio played well for the most part, but both players missed time. Cameron Erving and Austin Pasztor had up and down seasons with neither of them stamping their place as starters at their position. The line was fluid all season with a lot of change happening because of injuries. But, the offensive line was not as bad as many people have illustrated. The run game was good when it was called upon. In pass protection, the line was not helped by the quarterbacks, who almost all held onto the ball far too long. So, the line was not great, but it was not horrible.

Strength

Run Blocking

The Browns were second in the league in rushing yards per attempt with 4.9 yards per attempt. The Browns have some good run blockers on their offensive line. They may struggle in pass protection, but the line plays pretty well in Hue Jackson’s power run scheme. The Browns have good running backs, but the line was able to make some holes for them to help the running game produce.

Weakness

Center and Health

The center position is a real question right now. Cameron Erving has shown improvement, but he still struggles with the things he struggled with in college. The Browns depth at the position is also questionable with no real experience behind Erving. The team needs to upgrade this position.

The other weakness of the Browns offensive line is its health. Joe Thomas and Austin Pasztor were only two linemen to start all sixteen games this season. Joel Bitonio continues to miss big chunks of time with injuries, while John Greco missed games for the second consecutive season and is also getting older. The line struggled to have a stable lineup because of the constant injuries.

To Do List

  1. Find a center

Cameron Erving is the not the answer at center, in my opinion. He has the physical ability, but his continual struggles with technique and the mental aspect of the center position has continued to plague him. The young centers behind him have no experience, so relying on them would be a huge risk. The Browns need to target a center in free agency like A.Q. Shipley or the draft like Pat Elflein.

  1. Start Shon Coleman at right tackle

Shon Coleman is the future at the right tackle position and that future needs to start in 2017. He needs to get playing and experience in order to develop and learn the NFL game. He has the size, strength and athleticism to be a really good tackle. He showed it in the season finale that he is capable of playing right now.

  1. Re-sign Austin Pasztor

Austin Pasztor is an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Pasztor is not a right tackle, but he could be the future at the right guard spot. He played up and down at a position he is not best suited to be playing at. But, re-signing him gives the Browns a versatile lineman to backup at guard and tackle, while he waits to eventually replace Greco. A young lineman like him should not be let go.

  • BenRM

    I am of the opinion that our O-Line, when not totally beat up with injury, is actually fine. Cam Erving just makes everyone else look so much worse because he is not good.

  • scripty

    Can people find single game grades? What did Erving do as RT the last week? I’d prefer a certifiable talent at RT than the hodge-podge we will attempt to put in there, so I wouldnt mind seeing a pick of 12 or 33 used on an RT. Yes we need to get the center.

    Bitonio breaking down 2 years in a row has been the dagger. Might be time to face that maybe he’s just always going to be hurt.

  • mgbode

    “when not totally beat up with injury” is a gigantic issue

  • BenRM

    Indeed!

  • mgbode

    as Joe noted above for Reiter, single game grades are awfully hazardous. too many variables in such a small sample (did defense attack them, did they have a poor opponent, etc.)

  • scripty

    yeah, I mean it was the only game he played at RT though. I think Erving can stick around as a RT or back-up.

  • mgbode

    I’m fine with counting on him being a backup OL

  • tigersbrowns2

    considering Bitonio & Greco’s uncertainty , Pasztor should definitely be re-signed … there was no mention of OG Jonathan Cooper … is he still with the team & is he even a viable option ?

  • tigersbrowns2

    … i also liked the little i did see of Reiter.

  • woofersus

    I agree with your assessment. I think Erving and Coleman should compete for the RT spot, where each is best suited, Drango should be at RG until (and if) Grecco returns, and we need to find a starting Center.

  • Chris

    Didn’t the Browns run better with Shon Coleman in the game?

  • scripty

    lol I cant recall thats why I was hoping for the grades

  • paulbip

    he was cut

  • scripty

    Dallas signed him

  • mgbode

    same – as Joe noted, small sample size though

  • tigersbrowns2

    thank you , sir …

  • Jaker

    YES! I personally love your To-do list. Start grooming Coleman this offseason and tell him he’s got the starting spot if he works for it. When approaching Pasztor in FA, give him a multi-year contract to be a valuable backup/spot starter for years to come, which is similar to how we signed Johnny G. He should look at it as a good opportunity considering how our Guards are oft-injured or getting older. In terms of upgrading the line, I really like JC Tretter (C) from GB and Ronald Leary (G) from DAL. I think this is where we should set our focus to after we resign Collins (YAY), Pryor, Paz and Crow.

    Tretter has been a very good Center for the Packers, but got hurt this year. When he came back, the team was playing so well with Corey Linsley that they decided to keep Tretter on the bench. Given that GB has to sign TJ Lang and Nick Perry, I think Tretter will become a luxury they cannot afford. We may need to overpay some teams, but to fill our weakest position I think it’s worth it.

    Leary is in a similar situation in Dallas. He was replaced by La’el Collins, but is still a very good starting caliber Guard. In his first interview after they lost, it was clear he’s leaving to go start elsewhere.

    With these two guys, we are avoiding the $10M OLinemen, but we are still getting quality starters. Think of a Line that looked like Thomas-Bitonio-Tretter-Leary-Coleman, with Greco, Drango and Pasztor backing up. That is a great position group. And if getting both FA’s is a pipedream, I’d say go for Leary and then draft Pocic or Orlovsky (Cleveland guy) to start round 3. This might be a more realistic scenario, but Cleveland does offer a fat check and a chance to start, so you never know.

  • Jaker

    I do understand that the two FA’s is a pipedream. But they should be targets given their age (Tretter is 25, Leary is 27) and starting experience. I am ready to move on from Cam Erving and Alvin Bailey completely, and while I liked what I saw from Reiter, it’s tough to pass on Center in FA and the Draft considering how bad the position was last year.

  • Jaker

    I like this scenario if we don’t go after OL in FA. I think its realistic and could be a whole lot worse