In the event extending Joel Bitonio and singing J.C. Tretter was not enough to quench your offensive line thirst, the Cleveland Browns just rolled a giant truck of money into the home of guard Kevin Zeitler, signing him to a five-year deal worth a reported $60 million with a mammoth $31.5 million guaranteed. In doing so, the Browns not only added one of (if not the best) offensive linemen in free agency, but pilfered one of the best linemen in the AFC North by snatching Zeitler from the Cincinnati Bengals.
For those who don’t know much about Zeitler, know that he’s 26 years old, 6-foot-4-inches, 320 pounds, is a stellar blocker, and has familiarity with Hue Jackson’s system due to their collective time in Cincinnnati. Pro Football Focus has never graded him below a 78.7, ranking him sixth among 62 qualifying guards in 2016 in pass blocking (while the Browns’ two starters ranked 39th and 54th). Given the Browns’ needs—Browns QBs were sacked a league-high 68 times in 2016—and Zeitler’s skill set, there’s little surprise that this was named the team’s “dream” signing heading into free agency. They had to compete with the New Orleans Saints (who are looking for a replacement for long-time guard Jahri Evans) at the end, but the Browns also had to contend with the Indianapolis Colts and Jacksonville Jaguars to acquire Zeitler’s services.
#Browns building something special up there. Really validating analytics approach. Still need defensive help + QB
— Benjamin Allbright (@AllbrightNFL) March 9, 2017
It’s fair to continue to criticize this team for not working something out with Terrelle Pryor. Kenny Britt is eyebrow raising. There are also a ton of holes on the defensive side. But at the end of the day, Zeitler becomes the highest-paid guard in the entire NFL and the team is finally showing commitment to fielding an impressive, talented roster. Lest you think the rest of the Browns aren’t paying attention to these moves, you’ll want to scope out the reaction from running back Duke Johnson Jr.
— . (@DukeJohnson_8) March 9, 2017
Whether it was the front office overcompensating for the lack of attention paid to the line last offseason, Joe Thomas’ thoughts on how analytics value the unit, or a confluence of things (including the team’s sack total), it’s clear the front office had a vision about using their salary cap space to address giant weaknesses on the offensive side of the ball, starting from the inside out. Whomever the Browns decide to put under center for 2017 will have little in the way of excuses, but he will also have the ability to leverage a well-compensated, highly-skilled unit that will allow the game to not only slow down, but will allow for Hue Jackson to do a ton of play-calling with pulling guards and down-field blocking.
If last offseason’s free agency period made the Browns a punching bag, this one has slowly morphed them into one that hits back.