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Cleveland Browns Training Camp 2016: OL Preview, Part 1

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Our next position for our 2016 Cleveland Browns training camp preview is the offensive line, which we'll be exploring in a four-part series. In part 1 today, we will cover the four players who are virtual locks to start: Joe Thomas, Joel Bitonio, Cameron Erving, and John Greco. Part 2 will look at all of the competition at right tackle, and parts 3 and 4 will round out the rest of the backups. In total, there are 15 offensive linemen in camp.


8276_mediumJoe Thomas (#73)

6-6 | Weight: 312
Age: 31 | Experience: 10 years
College: Wisconsin

Note: Still hasn't missed a snap in his career ... Heavily involved in trade rumors this offseason, but is still a member of the club.

There isn't much else to say about Joe Thomas every year that isn't completely redundant. He has all the accolades, hasn't missed a snap, has always made the Pro Bowl, is always All-Pro, etc. He's missing the all-important "playoffs" stat, but anyone who studies his body of work coupled with Cleveland's situation year-in and year-out knows that the team's struggles aren't on him.

This year, Thomas will have to live with another quarterback situation that isn't very stable, starting with a quarterback who may or may not try to be mobile in Robert Griffin III. If he uses his mobility, that takes some adjusting from the offensive line as they try to anticipate whether the quarterback is still in the pocket or rolled out to their side, unbeknownst to them.

Whether or not Thomas would be traded was a hot topic this offseason, but the team ultimately held on to him as he still has several years under contract. With Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz walking in free agency, why didn't the team just clean house entirely up front? Because in order to truly evaluate some players on your line, you need at least one stable force in place. For example, if Cameron Erving struggles at center despite having Thomas and Joel Bitonio to his left, then it's probably a sign that the guy isn't going to cut it at the NFL level. However, if Thomas were gone and you had a weakness at left tackle, you start asking yourself, "is Erving just bad at center, or could he have matured better if the entire line wasn't such a mess?"

Final Roster Odds: 100%


8276_mediumJoel Bitonio (#75)

6-4 | Weight: 305
Age: 24 | Experience: 3 years
College: Nevada

Note: Missed six games in 2015 with an ankle sprain ... Had somewhat of a sophomore slump ... Still a strength on the offensive line.

Joel Bitonio was a rookie-of-the-year candidate in 2014, but succumbed to a little bit of a sophomore slump in 2015. He was not replacement-level bad or anything like that, but he didn't elevate his game to the next level to where I'd start thinking of him as a Pro Bowler.

It was actually quite frustrating to see the lack of chemistry that Bitonio and the rest of the line had when it came to communication. The good thing about my perceived slump for Bitonio last year is that I think it was communication- and system-based as opposed to technical issues, so you'd hope that a new coaching staff can get that corrected.

Bitonio only started 10 games last year. He started the first 9 before suffering an ankle injury. He tried to return several weeks later, but hurt his ankle again and was placed on injured reserve. With the team having let Mitchell Schwartz walk in free agency this offseason, I briefly flirted with the idea of Bitonio moving over to right tackle and letting someone like Austin Pasztor continue to work at left guard (he replaced Bitonio last year). However, all indications are that Bitonio will stay put at left guard.

Final Roster Odds: 100%


8276_mediumCameron Erving (#74)

6-5 | Weight: 305
Age: 24 | Experience: 3 years
College: Florida

Note: Being given the confidence to be "the guy" at center ... Probably saw zero reps at the position in 2015 despite being drafted for it.

Cameron Erving's rookie season was one to forget. If you want to look for something optimistic on him, though, here is the pitch.

The Browns tried to cram everything down Erving's throat last season except center, even though he was drafted to likely be a center. Unlike a Justin Gilbert, Erving's issues weren't based on effort, attitude, and technique -- he scored well in the team-player department. That doesn't count for a lot, but when you combine that with him sliding into his "natural" center position, maybe things will actually work out.

I think it's impossible to set an expectation for what type of season Erving will have, good or bad. We don't know what his body of work at center will be, but at the very least, it appears as though he'll be given a long leash and the opportunity to showcase why he was a first-round pick a year ago. His competition at center (in terms of youth) includes Mike Matthews and Garth Gerhart, but if the team decided in a pinch that they weren't content with Erving, John Greco would probably slide over. If you want to read more about Erving's optimism for 2016, click here.

Final Roster Odds: 100%


8276_mediumJohn Greco (#77)

6-4 | Weight: 313
Age: 31 | Experience: 9 years
College: Toledo

Note: Affordable contract keeps him with the club ... Losing two starters means he'll face no starting competition ... solid player.

John Greco has been able to remain a starter for the Browns because of the very team-friendly contract he signed several years ago, coupled with the fact that he's typically an average- to above-average performer. Next year, which is the final year of his contract, he'll practically be making the veteran minimum.

Greco started 14 games last season, but missed the final 2 outings after suffering a knee injury. He'll be fine for the upcoming season, but doesn't figure to face much competition. That's what happens when you lose starters on both sides of you -- speaking of which, that will be something to follow this season, as Greco has been working beside either Alex Mack or Mitchell Schwartz for most of his career with the Browns. He might not know who will be on his right until just before Week 1, and on his left, I'm sure he's praying that Cameron Erving isn't as lost at center as he was at offensive guard a year ago.

Final Roster Odds: 100%

Today's poll asks about your expectations for Erving this season.