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Joel Bitonio feels good, says his recovery’s moving in the right direction

The Browns are close to returning standout lineman Joel Bitonio after he missed most of the 2016 season.

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NFL: Preseason-Cleveland Browns at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The long wait for Joel Bitonio’s return to action continues, but the fourth-year offensive lineman is tracking for a planned comeback by Week 1 of the 2017 season.

While not fully back into action, Bitonio is improving and being eased back into the fold. Still, he’s not exactly certain when the team will allow him to join them with full participation in practice.

“It is hard to say exactly, but I feel really good,” Bitonio told reporters on Day 2 of the team’s June minicamp. “They are obviously letting me do some stuff so it is a good step. We are still five-six weeks away from camp so I think we are moving in the right direction.”

That direction points to the team getting back an integral piece of its offensive line. He’s already back on the field, and then he’ll have the next six-plus weeks to prepare for training camp.

“Good. I am feel really good actually,” Bitonio said. “It was awesome to be out there. I felt really good and strong. We are getting there.”

Although he has struggled staying healthy — playing just 15 games of the past two seasons after starting all 16 games as a rookie in 2014 — Bitonio recently signed a five-year, $51 million contract extension with the team. He got $23 million guaranteed in the deal to ensure he spends his prime playing days a staple of the Browns offensive line.

"It's just not something that I'm used to. I've never been hurt in my life till the last two years,” Bitonio said last year following successful Lisfranc surgery that prematurely ended his season. “A couple freak accidents, but I'm going to come back and I'm going to work my tail my off and do everything in my power to come back better next season."

It sounds like he has put in the hours and is ready to get back to work, which is great news for Cleveland’s offense.

Pro Football Focus gave him plenty of accolades for his rookie season in 2014, the lone season he has completed so far. The analytics company named him as not only the 1st runner up for its offensive rookie of the year award behind Odell Beckham Jr., but also a first team guard on its All NFL team for 2014. It goes without saying, but I’ll say those accomplishments are incredibly high praise for a rookie.

A rocky injury-riddled sophomore season ended prematurely, and he lost much of his third season in similar fashion. But his play was, according to PFF’s player grading scores, coming back into form in 2016.

It’s just a matter of time now before we’ll see him back on the field and learning to play with new teammates J. C. Tretter and Kevin Zeitler.

With Bitonio back on the field at guard next to Joe Thomas, the Browns offensive arguably boasts one of the best left sides in the league.