We're staying in the trenches still, but this time on the opposite side of the line. In 2007, our offensive line was tremendous compared to the previous eight years. Our starting quarterback was sacked less than once per game (14 times in 16 games), something that usually sounds like a Peyton Manning statistic. Our line did not specialize in the running game, but they still helped pave the way for a 1,300 yard season for Jamal Lewis.
Last year, things got much, much worse. Derek Anderson was sacked 14 times, but in just 10 games. That's still not a bad number, but the stats don't show how often Anderson was drilled by a defender, causing a desperation throw that would only lead to disaster. Lewis was getting hit in the backfield far too often.
When Eric Mangini took over the Jets, he made a commitment to the offensive line by drafting the likes of D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold in the same season. He already had a stud left tackle on the Browns roster and a solid left guard, but the rest of the line to the right of them was shaky.
Gone is Kevin Shaffer. In come veterans Floyd Womack and John St. Clair. In comes rookie center Alex Mack. And, waiting in the wings is the one and only Ryan Tucker. The offensive line is shaping up to be pretty darn good, but with a plan to become a unit that excels in the power running game.
Today, in Part 1, I will cover seven players who are competing for five spots. Tomorrow, the other six offensive linemen on the roster will be covered.
1. JOE THOMAS - STARTING LEFT TACKLE
After a Pro Bowl rookie season in 2007, Joe Thomas earned the same honors in 2008. It didn't seem like he played as well this past season, although he wasn't anywhere close to being terrible. He remained our best offensive lineman throughout the season. If anything, his struggles were a combination of the products around him struggling or being out with injuries.
The Browns have had a lot of high draft picks turn out to be busts, and a lot of left tackles taken early have ended up being nothing more than average. We were very fortunate to have the No. 3 pick in 2007, because we shouldn't have to worry about this position for about a decade. What should we look forward to with Thomas in training camp? Just don't pull a LeCharles Bentley, and everything should be fine. No, not just fine. Great.
Shaun Rogers is our best defensive player, and Joe Thomas is our best offensive player. It's good to have those foundations set in place in the trenches.
Job Security: A+
Player Quality: A+
Final Roster Odds: 100%
2. ERIC STEINBACH - STARTING LEFT GUARD
I don't buy in to the reports from earlier in the offseason that Eric Steinbach could end up being a surprise cut. The rumor started due to Steinbach not being the type of "big" offensive lineman that Mangini would like. After Mangini asked Steinbach to add a few pounds, more fuel was added to the fire.
Any way you look at it though, I don't see how any of the above would cause Mangini to cut our best interior offensive lineman.
I don't know what Steinbach weighs in at right now; the roster page says 295, but he reportedly added 12 pounds back at the beginning of June, and Terry Pluto indicated that he was somewhere in the 270-range last season.
"The key is adding weight but also keeping Steinbach's quickness, which is the key to his success."
Beyond bulking up, Steinbach needs to remain healthy this year. He missed a few games last season to injury and was banged up even when he did play, hurting an already thin Browns line. Mangini might decide to rotate Steinbach in-and-out of the lineup this season for instances where he really wants to pound the ball, but in no logical scenario do I see him cutting Steinbach.
Job Security: A
Player Quality: A-
Final Roster Odds: 99%
3. ALEX MACK - STARTING CENTER
After a manageable 2007 season, center Hank Fraley just didn't quite cut it last season. Having two hungry, powerhouse defenses in our division, the Browns can't afford to be vulnerable straight up the middle. When Brady Quinn goes for a playaction pass, the ideal scenario would have the defender still at the line of scrimmage, not a foot away from him. Fraley's level of play degraded last season, and I could only imagine it getting worse this season.
Enter rookie Alex Mack out of California. We tried a center once in the first round (Jeff Faine) an had decent results. With Mack, we don't need him to be a Pro Bowler -- just the stable presence that Fraley was starting to lack. In fairness to Fraley, Mangini is not going to award Mack the starting job right away. And, with all rookies, the possibility always exists that it takes a longer time to adjust to the NFL; not everyone can do it as well as Thomas did. In other words, Mack isn't a guarantee to start Week 1; but I believe he will.
If you missed them or would like to look back, here are two very good pieces we featured on Mack shortly after he was drafted back in April:
Job Security: B
Player Quality: TBD
Final Roster Odds: 100%
4. RYAN TUCKER - STARTING RIGHT TACKLE
Do not take it literally that Ryan Tucker is listed below Mack. I did it that way to make more of a transition from the left side of the line to the right side of the line, which is where we now stand. In an overall ranking, a healthy Tucker would be No. 2 or No. 3 on my list.
With Shaffer anchoring the right tackle position the past two seasons, the position is now open for Tucker to take again. Although, technically, it's not like Tucker ever really lost that position. In 2007, he was suspended for the first four games of the season. When he returned, he was place at right guard. Last year, early indications in training camp were that Tucker would see some time at tackle over Shaffer. That changed due to another injury for Tucker; he only played in one game. That game was a memorable one against the New York Giants. That game itself explains the difference Tucker can have on our pass protection.
The almighty question for Tucker is can he do it for 16 games again? He's done it before, so it might just require a little bit of luck from the football gods. He's been in the league for 13 years, but I don't think that plays into the equation yet. He's still good enough to play at a high level.
One more note: it's shaping up to be Ryan Tucker vs. Floyd Womack vs. John St. Clair vs. Rex Hadnot for the two positions on the right side of the line. In reality though, only one position is "up for grabs". Tucker will start at either right guard or at right tackle -- that might depend on where Mangini feels one of the other three guys fits in best. At this time, I'm projecting Tucker at the right tackle though.
Job Security: B- for right tackle, A for starting somewhere
Player Quality: B+
Final Roster Odds: 99%
5. FLOYD "PORK CHOP" WOMACK - COMPETING FOR STARTING RIGHT GUARD
Floyd Womack is my early favorite to be the Browns' right guard. While not a long-term solution, he has plenty of starting experience in the league and has played every position on the line except for center. While Womack is a candidate at right tackle too, right from the get go when he was signed in March, I made my prediction known:
"Although the signing of Womack so soon after the release of Kevin Shaffer might seem like a sign that he will be placed at right tackle, I wouldn't count on it. Womack, originally a fourth round pick in the 2001 draft, has only started in 47 of the 90 games he has played. Last season, Womack started 14 games -- 8 at right guard and 6 at left guard." (Link)
At 328 pounds, Womack would be about 50 pounds heavier than Steinbach was last year on the line. He has the bulk and the experience, but is he "good enough" to be a starter?
Job Security: B-
Player Quality: C+
Final Roster Odds: 98%
6. REX HADNOT - COMPETING FOR STARTING RIGHT GUARD
We can't count Rex Hadnot out of the picture just yet, considering he is the reigning starting right guard of the Browns. Prior to that, he had significant experience with the Miami Dolphins for several seasons.
You'll find that Hank Fraley is missing from today's piece (he'll be listed in Day 2). It looks like it could come down to a situation where we will keep one or the other -- Fraley or Hadnot. Fraley has more experience but appears to be on the downside of his career. Hadnot has experience at center and guard, and while he wasn't dominant last year, he wasn't manhandled the way Fraley was at times. This is a plus for Hadnot's roster chances, where youth would prevail over the aging veteran.
As far as actually winning the right guard position, we'll have to see. Hadnot seems to be at a disadvantage to start though since he lacks the experience at tackle. If Tucker is the guard, he's got no chance to start. If Tucker is the tackle, then he'll have to beat out a more established and versatile Womack.
Player Quality: C
Final Roster Odds: 75%
7. JOHN ST. CLAIR - COMPETING FOR STARTING RIGHT TACKLE
For the Chicago Bears last season, John St. Clair started all 16 games. Originally, the Bears made it known that it was a priority this offseason to bring him back...only to see him get signed by the Browns. This irritated many Bears fans at first over at Windy City Gridiron, our SB Nation affiliate:
Well, are you happy now? Most of you got your wish, St.Clair is gone. Now were a little closer to being seriously f**ked.
Not all the reactions were that drastic, mind you. The consensus seemed to be that St. Clair was mediocre, and fans thought he could be brought back for cheap. He ended up signing a 3-year, $9 million deal with the Browns. Several months later, Bears fans are now saying "John Who?" after the team signed Frank Omiyale, Orlando Pace, and former Brown Kevin Shaffer. The Bears upgraded at the position, but, similar to Womack at guard, St. Clair can fill at one-year void as a starter if necessary. If not, then he would be our best backup tackle.
Player Quality: C
Final Roster Odds: 95%
OL Position Quality: B+ (Starters/Contenders Only)
NOTE: Tomorrow I will have Part 2 of the offensive line preview, where depth players Marlon Davis, George Foster, Hank Fraley, Dustin Fry, Kurt Quarterman, and Isaac Sowells will be looked at.
Be sure to vote in the poll below, just like all of you have been doing with the other position previews. It'll be interesting to see which combination draws the highest approval rating at right tackle.