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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.