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Can Cody Kessler take advantage of an improved Browns offensive line?

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Cody Kessler’s rookie year was marred by a terrible offensive line charged with protecting him. With the improvements made in the offseason, can he—and the Browns’ offense as a whole—become more productive?

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

In 2016, the Cleveland Browns quarterbacks were sacked a total of 66 times, the most in the NFL. While the quarterbacks themselves should shoulder some of the blame, the offensive line was also a deciding factor in the numerous hits Cleveland’s passers took last season, and the injuries that invariably resulted. The Browns thus had five quarterbacks report for in-game duty last season, and head coach Hue Jackson himself was shocked by the beating taken by the position group as a whole.

But the Browns weren’t blind; with or without significant upgrades at the quarterback position, nothing would truly bring about improvements if the offensive line wasn’t more talented. Thus, Cleveland brought along a pair of free agents—center J.C. Tretter and guard Kevin Zeitler—while at the same time getting guard Joel Bitonio back from a foot injury that cost him all but five games a year ago.

In Tretter, the Browns get Pro Football Focus’ ninth-ranked center (and 12th in pass protection) and in Zeitler, their seventh-ranked guard overall (and fourth in protecting the passer). Those two additions, plus the return of the highly-regarded Bitonio, should help keep Kessler’s jersey more clean in 2017 than it was during the quarterback’s rookie year. But the story about Kessler and pressure is more complicated than that; declaring the problem solved by the Browns making offensive line upgrades erases a few key traits about Kessler’s playing style, traits that at times are assets and at others are liabilities.

While Football Outsiders ranked Cleveland’s 2016 offensive line as 28th in the league in run-blocking and dead last in pass protection, it does not account for the ways in which the quarterbacks themselves opened themselves up to pressure. Few offensive lines will be able to keep quarterbacks upright when they are taking 2.84 seconds to throw (in Robert Griffin III’s case) or an even more concerning 2.89 seconds for Kessler.

Though there are exceptions, the ideal is to keep a quarterback’s time to throw to 2.6 seconds or fewer; any longer and protections break down considerably unless a team can boast a set of linemen that is both finely-tuned and highly athletic. The latter, at least, can be said about Zeitler and Tretter, while the former will admittedly be a more time-consuming project.

The combined effect of the time-to-throw problem and the offensive line’s limitations thus led to Kessler being the league’s most-pressured quarterback in 2016.

But, curiously enough, Kessler didn’t entirely wilt. Beyond boasting an impressive 65.6 completion percentage on the season and throwing six touchdowns to two interceptions despite being sacked on 9.7 percent of his dropbacks, he managed to complete 80.6 percent of his passes thrown while being pressured (either by a traditional three- or four-man rush or in blitzing situations).

Therefore, one could take away from this that Kessler, bolstered by a better offensive line, a year of experience to his name and in possession of a rare ability to create while facing pressure could all combine to produce a striking improvement in the Browns’ passing offense in 2017. There’s also that new throwing motion to take into account to some degree, as well—perhaps that can cut down his time to throw.

But providing better protection is not all the line can do for the Browns or for Kessler this year. The run game is just as important to Cleveland’s offense as a whole as well as to the health and performance of the quarterback. Though developing a dynamic rushing identity is a hallmark of Jackson’s offensive style, 2016 was not a good reflection of that, and issues with the line—and Bitonio’s injury in particular—can be pinpointed as a primary problem.

The Browns were one of the top rushing offenses to open the 2016 season but that soon fell off, not coincidentally after Bitonio was injured in Week 5. The Browns went from averaging well over 100 rushing yards per game in Weeks 1 through 5 to surpassing the 100-yard mark only five additional times, four of which came after the Browns’ Week 13 bye.

Despite this, Cleveland’s top running back, Isaiah Crowell, still managed 952 yards and seven scores on his 198 attempts and averaged 4.8 yards per rush. He also averaged 3.2 yards per rush after contact, the best indicator of a running back’s inherent talent independent of what his line can create for him. To put that version of Crowell behind a line that is, as of now on-paper capable of handling its duties better than its 2016 iteration is the stuff Jackson’s sweetest dreams are made of.

A robust run game means that the Browns won’t have to pass as much—or at least, in an ideal world that is the case, for playing from behind will regularly result in coaches choosing to erase the run game altogether (even when that is actually an ill-advised go-to maneuver). It also gets rid of the Browns’ one-dimensionality problem.

Stopping Cleveland was easy for defenses a year ago, especially after Bitonio’s injury. The Browns ranked 18th in pass attempts last season and 31st in rushes, and because they ran so infrequently, defending their passing game became increasingly easy; thus, the Browns ended the year ranking only 28th in passing yardage and 30th in passing touchdowns. Rushing and passing is ultimately a “one hand washes the other” transaction and, in this metaphor, the soap and water is the offensive line. Without them, you just have two dirty hands rubbing each other. It’s as unpleasant as it sounds.

There are numerous variables at play that could lead the Browns’ offense down numerous paths this year. There is no guarantee that Kessler will maintain control of the starting job, as one example. Injuries are another—again, just look at how things broke down in 2016 simply because of Bitonio’s absence. But as it stands now, Cleveland has every reason to feel as though its offense will fare much better this season.