It’s time to start previewing the Cleveland Browns’ offensive line heading into training camp! Not including the long snapper, Cleveland presently has 16 offensive linemen on the team, so we’re going to break this preview into 4 parts.
In Part 1, we will look at the starting four offensive linemen who are locked in to their spots. Part 2 will look at the starting right tackle and backup guard competitors. Part 3 will look at four backups who could compete for the backup center spot. Lastly, Part 4 will take a look at the final four linemen on the 90-man roster.
1. Joe Thomas - Starting Left Tackle
Height: 6-6 | Weight: 312 lbs | Age: 32
Experience: 11 years | College: Wisconsin
We already know all of the good stuff when it comes to Thomas; he’ll be entering his 11th NFL season and has yet to miss a snap. When training camp comes around, he is one of the few players who is allowed to take it easy and will typically have every other day off. The future Hall of Famer has earned it, and still has not shown a decrease in production after all of these years.
Over the past five seasons, Joe Thomas has been the second most efficient pass blocking offensive tackle in the NFL. pic.twitter.com/EyZlJgimqH— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) June 26, 2017
A few years ago, the Browns’ offensive line had a lot of individual talent with Thomas, Joel Bitonio, Alex Mack, John Greco, and Mitchell Schwartz. Collectively, the unit underachieved a little bit, and then went through a one-year rough patch with the departures of Mack and Schwartz and injuries to Bitonio and Greco. In 2017, Thomas could be working with alongside his most talented line yet, although I’m sure he’d really prefer to be blocking for someone resembling a “quarterback of the future.”
Thomas has also become the team’s best follows on Twitter, and perhaps even one of the best follows in the NFL.
Final Roster Odds: 100%
2. Joel Bitonio - Starting Left Guard
Height: 6-4 | Weight: 305 lbs | Age: 25
Experience: 4 years | College: Nevada
How much do the Browns believe in Bitonio? The contract extension given to him this offseason keeps him with the team for the next 6 years (through 2022), and is worth $51.165 million with $17.165 million guaranteed during that stretch. Even though it’s not quite the same amount the club gave to Kevin Zeitler in free agency, it still puts Bitonio in the Top 10 at his position.
Unfortunately, it's not all sunshine-and-roses when we reflect on Bitonio's first three years with the Browns. He has been an above average player, and the contract would indicate that the team believes he can reach the level of a Pro Bowl caliber player one day. But the big concern is that he missed 6 games in 2015 and then missed 11 games in 2016 to injury. He had Lisfranc surgery last year, and is on track to recover and start participating in full some time during training camp. Injuries were never an issue for Bitonio prior to the 2015 season.
Browns guard Joel Bitonio is expected to be ready by the start of the season, he was posting impressive grades before injury in 2016 pic.twitter.com/fYQwvmuciK— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) May 31, 2017
Cleveland can really use Bitonio’s run blocking again, as it’s an area that suffered greatly after his departure in 2016. The Browns’ new additions in the starting lineup from center to right tackle all excel in run blocking, so it would be great if everyone could stay healthy so we can see this unit in action during the regular season.
Final Roster Odds: 100%
3. J.C. Tretter - Starting Center
Height: 6-3 | Weight: 307 lbs | Age: 26
Experience: 5 years | College: Cornell
This offseason, the Browns made what looks to be a terrific value move in repairing the center position by signing Tretter, a free agent, to a 3-year deal worth $16.75 million and $6.5 million guaranteed. Granted, it is still a high yield for a center -- the $5.58 million per year at signing made him the 10th-highest paid center in the NFL. However, it was still well below what it would've cost to retain former center Alex Mack, and in my opinion was worth the price for a team that had the cap space needed to improve such an important position.
I had both Tretter and Kevin Zeitler on my free agency wishlist for the Browns (at No. 3 and No. 1, respectively). A fourth-round pick in 2013, he started the first seven games of the 2016 season for the Packers before suffering a knee injury that kept him out the rest of the season. Although that knee injury hurt Tretter’s value a little bit, he’s only 26 years old and the expectation is that he’ll be fine for the 2017 season. PFF said “he hasn’t shown limitless upside, but his floor would appear to be a capable, solid starting center, which makes him a valuable commodity.” When you compare the number of QB pressures that Tretter and Cameron Erving allowed in a similar workload last year, it’s clear who the better player was:
J.C. Tretter replacing Cameron Erving is a big upgrade for the Browns at center pic.twitter.com/WdPrcoQvs2— Nathan Jahnke (@PFF_NateJahnke) March 9, 2017
Tretter also had the best run blocking grade on the Packers last season — it’s not an area he particularly excels in, but he’ll provide stability at a spot that could’ve been a long-term disaster after the departure of Alex Mack.
Final Roster Odds: 100%
4. Kevin Zeitler - Starting Right Guard
Height: 6-4 | Weight: 315 lbs | Age: 27
Experience: 7 years | College: Wisconsin
Our final player to look at in today’s preview is Zeitler (note: if I were actually ranking linemen, he would be No. 2 on the Browns; but for Part 1 of the offensive line preview every year, I just go from LT to LG to C to RG). He was the Browns’ biggest free agent signing, agreeing to a 5-year contract worth $60 million with $23 million fully guaranteed. In terms of average per year ($12 million), Zeitler is the highest-paid offensive guard in the NFL.
The thing to appreciate when it comes to Zeitler is his consistency at a high level. He will be entering his seventh NFL season, but has graded very well over the past three seasons:
Soon-to-be Cleveland Browns guard Kevin Zeitler is PFF's No. 2 overall free agent.— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) March 9, 2017
See full top 50 ranking: https://t.co/8bzh6JjSFL pic.twitter.com/whkMo2Kquy
Zeitler excels in both pass protection and run blocking, and you can derive what Hue Jackson’s strategy on offense will be in 2017 after looking at the team’s top-3 graded players:
The @Browns top graded players from 2016 pic.twitter.com/VLiE3lbHRx— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) June 10, 2017
Besides their production levels, Zeitler and Thomas have something in common: they both attended Wisconsin for college and were born there. Here are also two clips that demonstrate some of the things we’ll no doubt be seeing him do in 2017: Clip 1 | Clip 2.
Final Roster Odds: 100%
Let’s see how strongly you believe in the Browns’ top four offensive linemen: how many of them do you think will make the Pro Bowl in 2017?
Between Joe Thomas, Joel Bitonio, J.C. Tretter, and Kevin Zeitler, how many players will make the Pro Bowl in 2017?
This poll is closed