The Browns offensive line lost a legend in left tackle Joe Thomas this offseason, but the way the team responded to the retirement has been an absolute debacle. The Browns were faced with life after Joe Thomas on March 14th when the future Hall of Fame left tackle called it a career. Since then, the Browns have been sending mixed messages throughout the offseason.
Free agency was the first avenue the Browns could have addressed the left tackle spot. However, the Browns lone starter-level pickup was Chris Hubbard. Hubbard, though, has played exclusively at right tackle and was not signed to be the Browns left tackle. Cleveland had a chance to get Nate Solder, who was the New England Patriots left tackle for the past many years. The Browns opted not to go big on Solder, letting the left tackle sign elsewhere in free agency. Solder was the pretty much the only left tackle on the free agent market, so all eyes turned to the 2018 NFL Draft.
Let’s fast forward to the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft. The Browns had the first pick in the second round. With that selection, the Browns took offensive lineman Austin Corbett. Corbett was an interesting pick because he was a player who many experts thought would have to move inside to guard after playing his entire career at left tackle. What was he going to play? If he was taken to be the left tackle, then the selection made total sense. But, if he was just going to be a guard, then the selection is confusing based on the time of the draft he was taken and the guards that were still on the board, who would be better options. Following the pick, the Browns were not really convinced on what he would be. “If Austin is able to be the left tackle, it would be great,” said Browns Assistant General Manager Eliot Wolf. Not quite the confident tone.
When I studied Corbett, I believed he could be the left tackle for the Browns. He 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.
And the final part of this mess is Shon Coleman. Coleman was not good for the Browns at right tackle last season. He was up and down and by the end of the season, he did not show a lot of improvement. So, to make his development even harder, the Browns signed a right tackle in free agency, so they could move Coleman to left tackle. Coleman struggled at right tackle, but for some reason, the Browns thought left tackle, the most difficult position on the line, was a good idea.
Add in Greg Robinson, who the Browns took a flier on late in free agency, and the Browns had a lot of young left tackle candidates, who needed time and development. Coleman, Corbett, and Robinson were players who had weaknesses to work on and their games were not yet refined.
“You may see anything.” That is what Browns Head Coach Hue Jackson said following the NFL Draft about the possibility of Joe Bitonio moving over to left tackle. But, his words did not meet his actions. Jackson did not give much credence to the possibility of this happening and, while he did receive five or so reps at left tackle during OTAs, that was not enough for the team and Bitonio to be secure in his abilities. If you say that you may see anything, why did Jackson not give Bitonio any consistent reps at left tackle all offseason? The Browns wasted the entire offseason by not getting the Browns left guard more familiar with a possible move to left tackle.
Now fast forward to this past Sunday. Browns offensive line coach Bob Wylie talked about a possible move to left tackle for Bitonio. He said, “That is the last [option]. If you were going to go A down, that would be Z. That would be Z.” So, just a handful of days ago, the option of moving Bitonio to the outside was not the top of the list.
“When we evaluated when we did not have practice, we took some time and really looked at the tape,” said Jackson following Wednesday’s practice. “We made the decision that maybe our best five right now is putting Joel out at left tackle, putting Corbett at left guard and going from there.” The Browns made the move and named Bitonio as the Browns starting left tackle for the foreseeable future. It took all of five training camp practices for the Browns to cut bait on developing Coleman, Robinson, and Corbett at left tackle.
If the Browns had this little of patience in the young offensive lineman, why did the Browns only give Bitonio minimal reps at left tackle until the sixth practice of training camp? It makes the whole offseason a complete head-scratcher. Why did they take Corbett to be a guard, when there were a lot of top guards still on the board at the top of the second round? It makes the pick look like a reach. What was the plan?
Bitonio is probably the best left tackle on the roster. Moving him to left tackle is fine. It’s just how and when they did it. They wasted a whole offseason of practice for Bitonio to make a move, opting rather to give Bitonio only a few opportunities during OTAs to re-learn the position that he has not played at since 2013. Moving positions is extremely hard. I believe he can do it, but to make him do it at a flip of a switch at the beginning of training camp is not the best way to go about it.
The plan was just not there for the Browns offensive line. And it still looks like they are going to wing it. “I gave him 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,” said Jackson about what he told Bitonio about the switch to left tackle. The left tackle spot still may not be settled, which would continue the mess that is the Browns organization’s offensive line plan.