The Cleveland Browns’ offensive line is in a huge flux after losing last season’s starting center Alex Mack and starting right tackle Mitchell Schwartz in free agency. The unit is still led by perennial All-Pro Joe Thomas, but a couple of the line positions are still major question marks going into the 2016 season.
Currently, the offensive line unit consists of Thomas, John Greco, Cameron Erving, Joel Bitonio, Shon Coleman, Spencer Drango, Austin Pasztor, Alvin Bailey, Dan France, Garth Gerhart, Kaleb Johnson, Mike Matthews and Cory Tucker. So what can Browns fans expect from this group in the coming months? Our latest preview takes a look at the Browns offensive linemen and the status of the line for the 2016 NFL season.
Key Additions: Shon Coleman, Spencer Drango and Alvin Bailey
Key Losses: Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz
Expected Starters: Joe Thomas (LT), Joel Bitonio (LG), Cameron Erving (C), John Greco (RG) and Austin Pasztor (RT)
The Browns’ starting offensive line will look a whole lot different this season after losing Alex Mack and starting Mitchell Schwartz. So, the Browns will need to replace two positions on their offensive line. There are three locks on the line, with Thomas starting at left tackle, Bitonio starting at left guard and Greco starting at right guard. The two positions up for grabs are center and right tackle. Right now, Erving looks to be the leader at center, while Austin Pasztor looks to be the slight leader at right tackle. These spots, however, are still very fluid.
Joe Thomas is a future Hall of Famer and the mainstay on the Browns offensive line. He is still at the top of his game skill-wise. Entering his tenth season in the NFL, Thomas continued his Pro Bowl streak last season, making his ninth team in nine seasons. He is a premier pass blocker, able to contain even the best rushers in the league. His run blocking shows his ability to move defenders and seal lanes for the runners. The only real question mark with him is his health. Can he continue his stellar health for the tenth season in a row? But if he is on the field, the team is rock solid on the left edge of the line.
Joel Bitonio saw a slight dip in production in his second season in the NFL, but he still was a quality offensive lineman. Last season was a trying year for the young lineman as he played in just 10 games, suffering injuries throughout the season. If Bitonio can stay healthy, he has the size and athleticism to form a great left side of the Browns offensive line with Thomas. Health is once again the key for his success, much like Thomas.
John Greco is the forgotten one on the Browns offensive line, but he is still a productive lineman. Even Madden think so. Entering his ninth season, Greco is coming off a solid campaign, but one where his production dipped from the previous year where he missed two games with injuries. The move to a power blocking scheme under Hue Jackson should be interesting for Greco. He is not an overly strong blocker, using more athleticism and body positioning to win. But, I believe his experience and talent level will allow him to be far from a problem on the line. He should be OK at right guard, but his level of production will be interesting to watch over the season given the scheme change.
Cameron Erving was a disaster in his rookie season last year. There is no hiding that. With the loss of Alex Mack, the Browns are forced to throw the young Erving into the starting center spot—a position at which he was drafted to be the eventual replacement despite playing guard during his rookie year. Erving needs to show improved strength and technique in order to be able to keep his job at center. He has the athleticism you want in an offensive lineman, but just needs work—a lot of work. He could very well be considered the X-Factor for the offensive line this coming season.
Austin Pasztor played four games at left guard last year, showing glimpses of decent play. Entering his fifth season, Pasztor has been moved to right tackle to compete for the starting job, listed as the starting right tackle on the unofficial Browns’ depth chart. He is a bruising lineman who can overpower defenders with his strength and intensity , but he is not a substantial talent athletically or technique-wise. His status as a starter is far from certain.
Possible Contributors: Shon Coleman (T), Spencer Drango (T), Alvin Bailey (T/G) and Garth Gerhart (C)
The Browns backup offensive linemen consist of rookies and career backups, so there is not a lot of experience to rely on in this group. With two positions still up for grabs, the group of possible contributors is bigger than normal. The main contenders to be possible contributors on the Browns offensive line are T Shon Coleman, T/G Spencer Drango, T/G Alvin Bailey and C Garth Gerhart. Development will be key for this group to be successful contributors this season.
Shon Coleman is the most talented lineman of this group. The Browns third round pick in 2016 has the size, length, strength, technique and movement skills that could and eventually should catapult him into the Browns starting right tackle spot. He is not ready physically, however, due to a knee surgery in January. Coleman must get healthy and physically fit in order to be a contributor for the team.
Spencer Drango is a player who gives the team versatility, able to play both guard and tackle. The Browns fifth round pick is in the right tackle battle, competing for the starting spot with Pasztor. He has good intelligence, a strong upper body and good body positioning that has really helped him get his name in the battle for the right tackle spot. Drango could be the sleeper in this competition, but in my opinion he would fit better as an offensive guard in the NFL.
Alvin Bailey is another player who has versatility to play both guard and tackle. Entering his fourth season in the NFL, Bailey started three games at left tackle for Seattle last season. He has the most experience of the backup options, which could help him gain advantage over the others and could even get him an advantage at winning the right tackle spot. He is probably best suited as a versatile backup.
Garth Gerhart is a possible contributor due mostly to uncertainty of Cameron Erving at center. After going undrafted in 2012, Gerhart has been a journeyman in the NFL, never really sticking on a team for a whole season. His only possible chance of making the team would be if Erving is a complete disaster at center. The likelihood of Gerhart remaining on the team, however, is not high. Undrafted center Mike Matthews (nephew of former Browns linebacker Clay Matthews and son of Hall of Fame lineman Bruce Matthews) may also play a role.
The Browns’ backup group will be key to the offensive line’s success, especially the young players. With the loss of two starters this season, the Browns will need to grow their depth on the line to make up for the losses. Development will be key for this group. It is also a very fluid group with the battles of the starting jobs impacting this group immensely.
Biggest Strength: Left Side
How can you not say the side of the offensive that Joe Thomas is playing is the team’s strength? Joe Thomas has been a dominant mainstay at left tackle spot, producing both at pass and run blocking. But, alongside Thomas is also a tough lineman, Joe Bitonio. He had a rough year last season dealing with injuries, but he is still a bright lineman for the Browns. He forms a tough wall on the left side with Thomas. Both players are gifted with athleticism and size that are ideal for offensive lineman. The Browns offense will surely look to rely heavily on the left side of the offensive line, running things toward those two talented linemen.
Biggest Weakness: Center and Right Tackle
The Browns lost center Alex Mack and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, creating huge holes at those two positions. Right now, there are no clear and reliable linemen who will come in and be able to match the production of the two former Browns. They are positions in flux. Going into preseason game No. 3, there is still uncertainty on who will fill in this positions and how well they will be able to do so. The Browns offensive line has two big holes in their starting lineup at center and right tackle. They need two linemen to step up and fill these spots.
Key Player: Cameron Erving
Cameron Erving is the key to making the offensive line a successful unit. It is all but assured of being the starting center, so he will need to show that he deserves this spot. The center is in charge of line calls and is the nearest defense of the quarterback. If Erving cannot produce, the line as a whole will suffer greatly. He has the athleticism and size to be a talented player, but he must improve his strength and technique. His improvement and development this season will decide whether the offensive line succeeds or fails. If he can be steady, the line should be in a much better place.
The Browns offensive line unit used to be a huge strength for the team, but after losing two starters this offseason the unit is in a bit of unrest. Two starting positions are uncertain going into the season, so there are just a lot of unknowns with the offensive line. The Browns will need to rely on the veteran lineman, in particularly the left side of Joe Thomas and Joel Bitonio. The offense will probably be left oriented in their play calling, relying on the wall of Thomas and Bitonio to lead the way.
Development and coaching will once again be key for this position. With the young players of Cameron Erving, Shon Coleman and Spencer Drango, the team will need to coach them up and develop their talent. The Browns will be in the best position if they can have Erving and Coleman fill in the two vacant spots at center and right tackle. Both players have immense talent and athleticism that are ahead of the rest of the completion. But right now, they and the entire offensive line are still amidst in uncertainty. The offensive line has become a real question mark for the offense.