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Cleveland Browns offensive line ranked 2nd best in NFL

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Possibly the most unsurprising revelation by Pro Football Focus analytics data: the Cleveland Browns offensive line looks like one of the best groups in the league heading into the 2017 season.

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

Analytics website Pro Football Focus ranked the Cleveland Browns offensive line as the second best overall unit heading into the 2017 NFL season.

We know the Browns have a lot invested in their offensive line, and we’re not just talking about draft picks anymore. After losing star center Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz to free agency last year, this offseason Sashi Brown properly prioritized his team’s offensive line.

Brown handed out a lucrative contract to former Cincinnati Bengals guard Kevin Zeitler, threw some decent cash at ex-Packers center J.C. Tretter, and inked Browns’ own Joel Bitonio to an enormous extension.

His team is being rewarded for its rebuilding efforts in the trenches, at least according to common sense, and also this blurb from Pro Football Focus’ ranking of all 32 offensive lines.

The offseason free agent spending spree could pay off huge dividends in Cleveland. J.C. Tretter and Kevin Zeitler both bring well above-average grades from a season ago at center and guard, respectively. The only question mark comes at right tackle where Shon Coleman looked at least competent in his 62 snaps as a rookie.

Here’s a depiction of each projecting starting Browns lineman’s player rating by the site, from one of its Twitter posts in mid-June:

While Shon Coleman is penciled is as the presumed starter in this scenario, there’ll still be a training camp battle for that spot. Third-year man Cam Erving could bring lessons learned from his early career struggles and push Coleman for the job, or he could fall into a valuable backup role. Either way, the team’s weakest presumed link will at least be a position of contention, which will hopefully result in better play overall from whoever wins the competition.

In case you’re wondering, here’s a look at how the AFC North finished in the rankings. Note the changes in ranking from before the 2016 season, after it, and now.

PFF AFC North O-Line Rankings, June 2017

Team 2017 Preseason Post-2016 Pre-2016 Ovr. Change
Team 2017 Preseason Post-2016 Pre-2016 Ovr. Change
Browns 2 16 21 19
Steelers 3 3 14 11
Ravens 23 9 13 -10
Bengals 31 13 4 -27
PFF O-Line Rankings from 2016-17

The Bengals and Ravens have been up and down in these rankings due to personnel moves and declining play, while the Browns somewhat unsurprisingly made the biggest jump in the last 12 months. Remember, the Browns fell to No. 21 in 2016 preseason rankings after losing Mack and Schwartz. Then the group outplayed PFF’s projection to finish the season at No. 16. With their offseason additions and Bitonio returning, they’re back to an elite group in PFF’s eyes, good enough for the second best spot on their 2017 preseason list.

It’s important to note that while the Browns are getting recognition for having “won” the offseason by bolstering their offensive line, the unit still needs to show what it can do together on the field, and then stay healthy for any of it to matter. Offensive lines are sometimes only as good as their weakest parts, only as good as the guys who stay healthy and only as good as the guy making the calls for the group.

Can Tretter be the general for this year’s line like what Mack was in years past? Will Bitonio and Tretter play all 16 games? Will Joe Thomas begin to decline?

There is clear optimism for them heading into 2017, but there are a number of questions needing answered before we see this group’s post-2017 ranking reflect anywhere close to this projection.