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Worried about life after Joe Thomas: While We’re Waiting

Cleveland Browns Joe Thomas
David Richard, The Associated Press

10,363. The number is inconceivable. A football player on the line of scrimmage battling with the biggest and baddest athletes on the gridiron was capable of navigating a sure Hall of Fame career over 167 games without taking a single snap on offense off. He did so for a team that never made the playoffs and rarely even sniffed contention. Yet, left tackle Joe Thomas continued his greatness undeterred without so much as a request for a veteran’s early season exit amidst the many pointless Week 17 affairs. The Achilles of the Cleveland Browns saw his downfall not in the lower portions of his leg, but in the upper portions of his arm as a torn triceps would not only end his consecutive snap streak but also his career.

The Browns are now attempting to navigate through the wake of Thomas’ retirement. The front office attempted to patch the holes at both tackle spots with free agent bids to both Chris Hubbard and Nate Solder. Only Hubbard was willing to take the bait by accepting the contract offered to him. The issue is he only helps to shore up the right tackle position. Once Solder agreed elsewhere, the waters would become choppier and no left tackle life preserver would be found.

The 2018 NFL Draft would offer no reprieve as it contained one of the weakest graded offensive tackle classes in recent years. Having four picks among the first 35 overall selections does little good without an obvious heir apparent to Thomas to use one on. Instead, the Browns would gamble on the versatility and athleticism of Austin Corbett rather than attempt to force-fit a tackle onto the roster or select a pure guard or center to bolster the line.

My evaluation of Corbett found him more than capable in two of the three essential components of an offensive lineman. The four-year Nevada Wolfpack left tackle starter had fantastic hand-usage and a mindset to punish his opponents. The problem for him is that the third spoke on this particular wheel is the most important for a blindside protector. He had below average feet in not only the depth of drops but also in lateral movement. As such, Corbett would tend to lunge due to poor positioning from miscalculating the rusher’s path. Against the speed rushers of the NFL, such lunges will rarely connect.

WFNY’s Joe Gilbert had a similar though more optimistic thought on his left tackle chances:

{Corbett} showed the hands, mentality, IQ and movement skills to be one. His biggest issue was with his technique, especially in pass protection. The depth and angles he would take on pass drops was a clear area that needed to be fixed. Time was needed for the Nevada left tackle to develop his game, but I thought his weaknesses were fixable, giving him a chance to be the Browns left tackle.

Time is something the Browns coaching staff does not have. Coming in on the third season with only one win to their resume, a speed bump rather than a wall on the left side of the line simply cannot suffice. After much talk of versatility and learning multiple positions along the offensive line upon drafting Corbett, he was quickly relegated to the interior once Jackson and his coaches were able to evaluate his skillset firsthand.

Failing to find sufficient means to patch the Hall of Fame sized hole on the left side of the line, Shon Coleman was given dibs to the starting role. He had struggled in his attempts on the right side in 2017, but some remained hopeful he could be adequate enough until a more permanent fixture could be found. Surely, Coleman deserved the opportunity given the possibility of development more than that of the disaster 2017 tackle film from Spencer Drango or the flamed out top draft pick bust status of Greg Robinson.

Less than a week into Training Camp, the coaches moved off Coleman.1 Matching up against Myles Garrett and an array of other Browns defensive ends was so disastrous, the coaches could not bear the deficiency along the line any further. To their credit, the difficult decision was made in order to create what they believe is the best starting five along the offensive line even as it calls into question their previous evaluations given the quickness of the pivot.2

Joel Bitonio did not have a long history at left tackle in college. He played his last year at the position and a few games in the years prior. His draft evaluations indicated he had elite hands, a great mindset, and adequate feet. As with an end of the rotation MLB pitcher, a transition from being in the rotation (tackle) to the bullpen (guard) allowed his abilities ramp from the possibility of average to elite. And, an elite guard he became.

The issue becomes if the Browns desperate need at left tackle is forcing them to become weaker at guard in order to have average play there. Bitonio’s reluctance to slide one position to his left has been noted both by himself and coach Jackson.3 Bitonio has also noted the late shift has left him heavier for the tackle position than he would have liked and that he has been noticeably winded given he no longer has the ability to anchor himself to a patch of grass. Jackson, meanwhile, has been impressed by the early returns though he noted a promise to Bitonio to continue to search for a way to move him back to guard.4

Perhaps Bitonio will thrive in his new place along the offensive line and fall in love with the position. Perhaps left tackle has a slightly diminished importance in an NFL that has seen defensive coordinators find ways to put their best rushing players all along the line and offensive coordinators find ways to spread the field with quicker reads.5 Perhaps Corbett will be the next Browns rookie guard from Nevada to dominate; creating a Wolfpack connection alongside the left side of the line.

Still, there are worries. Bitonio is being given four weeks to learn a new position when he could have been given four months. Corbett was drafted for his versatility and had been preparing for multiple positions instead of one. A true guard could have been drafted had the team been honest with their true needs rather than transition a tackle into the spot as different offensive line positions do take different footwork and skills.

The Cleveland Browns are entering a new era of football. After not giving a second thought to the most important position on the offensive line for the last 11 seasons, the position has undergone constant flux over the offseason. The latest shuffle might have solidified the line for years to come or weakened the interior in order to patch the exterior. Which comes to pass shall be played out on the field. Until then, there are only hopes and worries to ponder.

  1. “That position has to play better for us. This is the decision that I made.” -Hue Jackson discussing Shon Coleman’s demotion. []
  2. “We made the decision that maybe our best five right now is putting Joel out at left tackle, putting (OL Austin) Corbett at left guard and going from there. Not saying that Joel might be there the whole time. Right now, he is there.” Hue Jackson on the new starting offensive line. []
  3. “Was he reluctant? Yeah, I would be, too. He plays a position, and he is really good at it, but for his teammates, for his coaching staff and for all involved, he knows that is the best place for him to be right now.” Hue Jackson discussing Bitonio moving to left tackle.
    “You are always scared of the unknown. I don’t know how it is going to go at left tackle. I kind of know how it is going to go at left guard. I am going to go out there and give it my best shot and try to help the team win.” Bitonio on starting at left tackle. []
  4. “I gave (Bitonio) my blessing that I am going to do everything that I can to continue to get us into a position where we continue to look for a left tackle, whether it is here or someplace else. I think that he trusts me.” said Hue Jackson []
  5. Days of common maximum protection schemes with four verticals and the left tackle left on an island with the best edge rusher are supposedly gone. []