2017 Browns Season Position Preview: Offensive Line

The biggest upgrade on offense this offseason was done the offensive line. The Browns signed two starters, center J.C. Tretter and guard Kevin Zeitler, to improve their line and make it a strength on the team. Currently, left tackle Joe Thomas, center J.C. Tretter, right guard Kevin Zeitler, left guard Joel Bitonio, tackle Shon Coleman, guard/tackle Spencer Drango, tackle Cameron Erving, center Austin Reiter, center Anthony Fabiano, guard John Greco, center Gabe Ikard, tackle Rod Johnson, center Marcus Martin, tackle Matt McCants, guard Kitt O’Brien and tackle Zach Sterup make up the offensive line unit.

So, what can the Browns expect from their new look offensive line? WFNY can help answer that question with an examination of the Browns offensive line going into the 2017 NFL season.

Additions: C JC Tretter, G Kevin Zeitler, T Rod Johnson, C Marcus Martin, T Matt McCants, and G Kitt O’Brien

Subtractions: T Austin Pasztor and G Alvin Bailey

Projected Starters: LT Joe Thomas, LG Joel Bitonio, C JC Tretter, RG Kevin Zeitler and RT Shon Coleman

The Browns starting lineup was upgraded this offseason with two new additions in center J.C. Tretter and right guard Kevin Zeitler. It is a line that has the makings of a really good unit who could be the centerpiece of the offense. The starting line going into the season looks to be Joe Thomas at left tackle, Joel Bitonio at left guard, J.C. Tretter at center, Kevin Zeitler at right guard and Shon Coleman at right tackle.

The offensive line has been anchored and led by left tackle Joe Thomas for the past decade and this coming season will be no different. Thomas had another Pro Bowl season with his level of performance showing little wear with age. He is the reliable backside protection for the quarterback who has the athleticism to match any speed from the league’s best edge rushers. He is elite in pass blocking and very good in run blocking. He should continue his Hall of Fame career this coming season with another Pro Bowl performance.

Next to Thomas, Joel Bitonio is another talented lineman for the Browns. He is a big lineman with good athleticism to match up well against size and athleticism. He performs well in both pass and run blocking situations. His biggest issue is his health and his ability to stay on the field. Since playing all 16 games in his rookie year, Bitonio has missed many games, including missing 11 games last season. When he is playing, he is one of the best in the league. But, he just has not been consistently on the field and so the key to his success will be his health.

In the middle of the line, J.C. Tretter will be the new man hiking the ball to the quarterback. The Browns signed the former Green Bay Packer in free agency to shore up the center position that has been struggling ever since Alex Mack left. Tretter continues the trend of athleticism on the line. He is good at both run and pass blocking. However like Bitonio, health will be the question. He only played in seven games last season after his season was cut short with a knee injury. The former Packer will need to prove he is healthy and back to his previous form.

Kevin Zeitler was the big addition this offseason, signing the major free agent contract to leave Cincinnati and come man the Browns right guard spot. Zeitler is a powerful player who can create holes with pure strength. He also possesses good technique, which makes him good at both run and pass blocking. He should fit right in Hue Jackson’s offense after playing in it for multiple years in Cincinnati. His addition is a huge upgrade for the Browns offensive line.

Shon Coleman played in just one game last season, the season finale versus Pittsburgh. In the limited action, he showed spurts of the ability that the Browns drafted him for. He is a huge man with the strength and athleticism to be a starting offensive tackle in the league. His development in the training and preseason will be very important for his success this season. He is competing with Cameron Erving for the starting right tackle spot, but I believe Coleman’s talent is too much for him to not earn the spot. He is probably the key to the offensive line because the right tackle position is the only real question mark on the line.

The Browns starting line has the chance to be extremely good and one of the best in the entire league. The key to their success will be health and the right tackle spot. The Browns offensive line starters must stay healthy and remain on the field. The right tackle is the only open spot on the line and the player who wins the spot can make the line a complete and dominant line. I have really high expectations for these talented starting offensive linemen.

Possible Contributors: T Cameron Erving, G John Greco, G/T Spencer Drango and C Austin Reiter

Hopefully the Browns will not need any other possible contributors besides when the team needs extra linemen along the line. But, this is not a perfect world. Injuries happen, meaning there will possibly be a need for a backup offensive lineman to come in and play. The most likely contributors of the offensive line beyond the starting linemen already named are T Cameron Erving, G John Greco, G/T Spencer Drango and C Austin Reiter.

The lineman with the best chance of contributing among these four players is Cameron Erving. He is currently battling with Shon Coleman for the starting right tackle spot. I believe Coleman will win the battle, but Erving has a chance to take the spot. After starting his career at center, two subpar years at center have caused coaches to move his focus to right tackle. He is a player with good size and movement skills, but his technique and mental part of his game has held him back. He played part of the season finale last year at right tackle and looked actually more comfortable there than at center. At tackle, he would not have to put his fellow linemen in the right protection, focusing just on himself. He will likely be the No. 1 backup tackle for the team this season.

John Greco had a solid season last year at right guard, but the signing of Kevin Zeitler has moved Greco out of the starting lineup. Besides Zeitler being more talented than Greco, Greco’s health was one of the other reasons the team brought in Zeitler. But, he will be a valuable player for the offensive line, He will likely be used as the first extra lineman used when the team goes with more than a five linemen look. But, he will also be valuable because of his versatility. He can play center and both guard spots. So if the Browns suffer an injury at one of those spots, Greco can come in right away and the position would not see a huge drop in performance.

Spencer Drango is another player who offers good versatility as a backup lineman. In his rookie season last year, he started nine games with eight of them coming at left guard. Drango is a strong road grader who performs best in run blocking situation. He is limited athletically, which hampers his ability to be a quality starting offensive lineman in the league. But, he will be a valuable backup who can come in when the team is in a jumbo set for running plays with the ability to play guard and some tackle, which was his college position.

Austin Reiter could be a possible contributor this season, being the top backup at the center position. Reiter started one game at center last season, but missed the rest of the season when he suffered a torn ACL in the same game. Though, John Greco might determine Reiter’s place on the roster. Greco has the experience of playing center, so Reiter might not have a spot on the roster. If the team wants to save a spot on the roster for another position, Greco’s versatility may be bad news for Reiter.

Biggest Strength: Starting Line

The strength of the Browns offensive line is the five players in the starting lineup. With the additions of center Tretter and right guard Zeitler, the Browns upgraded the starting offensive line into one of the strengths of offense. The line is anchored by future Hall of Famer Joe Thomas. When healthy, Tretter, Zeitler, Thomas and Bitonio are mentioned amongst the top lineman of their respective position. At right tackle, Coleman is the biggest question mark of the five starters, but he possesses the talent that teams look for at the right tackle position. It is a group that needs to gel together, but it is a group that could be amongst the best in the entire league.

Biggest Weakness: Health

The biggest weakness of the offensive line is their health and ability to stay on the field. JC Tretter, Joel Bitonio, John Greco, Cameron Erving and Austin Reiter have all missed a good chunk of games over the past couple seasons. On the starting offensive line, the team is relying on two players, JC Tretter and Joel Bitonio, who missed a big part of last season with injuries. The health of these players and their ability to remain on the field is the biggest question mark for the offensive line going into this coming season.

Key Player: T Shon Coleman

The key player for the offensive line is right tackle Shon Coleman. Right tackle is the only position on the offensive line that is still up in the air and without a named starter. Coleman can solidify the right tackle spot and make the starting line a complete and formidable unit. He is a player with the size, strength and movement skills to be the right tackle of the future. He is still young, so coaching will be important for him and his development. If he can develop and hold down the right tackle position, the line will be a huge strength for the team and the centerpiece of the offense.

Top Training Camp Battle: T Shon Coleman vs T Cameron Erving

The biggest training camp battle in the offensive line position is the one for the starting right tackle between Shon Coleman and Cameron Erving. Both players have the size and movement skills to play right tackle. But, both are young linemen with little experience in the NFL at the position. They both need time and development, but one of these two will likely be thrust into the starting lineup and earn their development while playing on the field. I believe Coleman has the most talent of the two battling for the spot. Coleman has the potential to be the right tackle of the future. I believe in the end, Coleman will win the spot, but Erving has played better than expected so far in training camp.

Overall Opinion:

The Browns offensive line saw a big shakeup this offseason with two big upgrades along the line. The team added J.C. Tretter to shore up the center position and Kevin Zeitler to shore up the right guard position. Both players have the talent to be one of the best linemen in the league at their positions. These two will be added to the great Joe Thomas at left tackle and young, talented Joel Bitonio at left guard. Right tackle has potential in both Shon Coleman and Cameron Erving, but it is the position still up in the air as we go into the season. Erving, John Greco, Spencer Drango and Austin Reiter form a solid backup group on the offensive line. Anthony Fabiano, Gabe Ikard, Rod Johnson, Marcus Martin, Matt McCants, Kitt O’Brien and Zach Sterup are the rest of the offensive linemen on the roster. These players will have a tough time making the squad with Rod Johnson likely being a practice squad player.

The offensive line is in the best shape it has been since the team’s return in 1999. From Joe Thomas to Joel Bitonio to J.C. Tretter to Kevin Zeitler, these four have the talent to be Pro Bowl-level offensive linemen. Two things, health and the right tackle position, will determine the success of the unit. The offensive line is filled with players who have missed quite a bit of time with injuries over the past several years. The unit has depth to withstand some injuries, but it cannot reach its ceiling if the starting line cannot stay on the field consistently. Right tackle is the only position still without a named starter. The player who wins the job at that position will help determine how good of a line the unit can be. I have a high belief that Coleman will win the job and that the unit will perform very well. It will be the centerpiece of a really good run game and help protect whoever is under center. In my opinion, the Browns will have a top five offensive line this season.

2017 Browns Season Position Preview Series: Quarterback, Running Back/Fullback, Wide Receiver, Tight End, Offensive Line