The Cleveland Browns have been quite active early in the 2018 free agency period and for good reason. They came into the offseason with 12 picks in the upcoming NFL Draft and over $100 million in salary cap space available to spend. Coming off of an 0-16 record in 2017, improvement is clearly on their mind and revamping the roster is one way to achieve it.
One of their splashiest moves of free agency’s early hours was to sign free agent offensive lineman Chris Hubbard. Hubbard is expected to command $37.5 million over five years with $18 million guaranteed.
But, who is he? Despite Hubbard spending his career with the AFC North rival Pittsburgh Steelers, he’s still a relatively unknown quantity to Browns fans. That doesn’t mean Cleveland threw money around to a random free agent; no, it’s rather that they have well-scouted a versatile and talented player who could easily become a long-term fixture on the offensive line.
Hubbard was originally an undrafted free agent signing for Pittsburgh in 2013. He hopped off the roster in final cuts that year and onto the practice squad, and earned a reserve/future contract that following January. He spent 2014 and 2015 as a backup lineman, appearing in nine games but starting none. However, he got the nod in 2016, picking up four starts—one at left guard and three at right tackle, filling in for brief injuries to Ramon Foster and Marcus Gilbert.
That brief starting experience—as well as his performance in practices and the preseason—was enough to convince the Steelers to keep Hubbard around in 2017. Though it was on an original-round tender, earning him just over $1.7 million, he proved to be far more valuable than that. He ultimately started 10 games last season, mostly in relief of right tackle Marcus Gilbert who missed time both because of injury and a four-game suspension. And he was not just a replacement-level player, either; he gave up just four sacks and tallied only three penalties during his first-team tenure and established himself as a worthy full-time starter.
While it’s mainly because of Hubbard’s performance in Gilbert’s stead that has earned him his new contract in Cleveland there’s more to the signing than meets the eye. Of course, the retirement of Joe Thomas leaves a hole at left tackle. And while Hubbard didn’t work at that position in Pittsburgh a year ago, he could be Thomas’ replacement. If not—if Shon Coleman is now penciled in as Cleveland’s presumed starting left tackle for 2018—then Hubbard is the right tackle.
Further, though Hubbard’s his most recent work was at tackle, he’s also had experience at guard. He can also be an emergency center. He can line up as a tight end in extra-lineman situations. All of this adds considerable value to the signing. And, perhaps most importantly, he’s spent years with Todd Haley, the Browns’ new offensive coordinator.
It’s not to be expected that the Browns will run a clone of the Steelers’ offense, which Haley was in charge of for six seasons. But there should be some similarities, especially with the way that Duke Johnson and Carlos Hyde can be employed as both runners and receivers and the addition of quarterback Tyrod Taylor who, at this point, can be penciled in as the team’s Week 1 starter. Haley’s zone-blocking-heavy run game augmented by running back screens requires athletic offensive linemen, as does the ability to block for a quarterback who has the ability to be unpredictable in order to extend plays.
Hubbard has been essentially brought up in Haley’s system; his presence in Cleveland now provides a coach-to-player bridge between the offense and the rest of the line. It also should help that Hubbard is accustomed to Haley’s coaching style, which could be generously described as a little brash.
At $7.5 million a year on average, Hubbard’s contract will rank him fourth among right tackles for 2018. That may seem steep for someone who is relatively unknown; however, Hubbard’s under-the-radar status belies his actual level of talent. Even if Thomas had been able to play for an additional season, the signing of Hubbard should still prove to be one of Cleveland’s best free agency moves of the year. His is a contract earned through hard work and high-level on-field performance, two things that should not cease during his Browns career.