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Joel Bitonio traveling familiar territory in switch to left tackle

Football Outsiders answered a group of Browns-focused questions prompted by the Dawgs By Nature staff, including whether Joel Bitonio’s switch as an elite guard to left tackle was a unique event.

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NFL: Cleveland Browns at New York Giants Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Mastering any offensive line position is a hard enough, but getting there and then being asked to transition to left tackle, easily the hardest and most important spot on the line, is a tall and complicated task.

The Dawgs By Nature staff reached out to Football Outsiders to help figure out which elite guards have successfully made the change to left tackle that Joel Bitonio is currently undergoing. We found out that there have been two primary examples of this kind of transition occurring in the not-so-distant past.

First was New York Giants lineman David Diehl. Drafted 160th overall out of Illinois in 2003 as a versatile offensive lineman after playing guard his senior season in Champaign, Diehl didn’t take much time to surpass expectations following his 5th round draft selection. After starting every game for the G-men during his rookie season, Diehl was moved everywhere on their offensive line during his 11 seasons with the team. Like Bitonio he started at guard—but on the right side—moved to right tackle in his sophomore season, transitioned to left guard for the next two seasons, and then made the transition to left tackle in 2007. The Giants won their first of two Super Bowls that year with him at left tackle. He also started at left tackle in every game in 2011, the year the Giants won Super Bowl XLVI.

Diehl was appreciated by his team during his 11-year career for his selflessness, work ethic and leadership.

“When I think of David Diehl what comes to mind is his indomitable spirit,” coach Tom Coughlin said, following Diehl’s retirement in 2014. “He got the most out of his God-given ability and that’s the best way that you can judge any individual. What more can you ask of the guy?’’

It’s obvious that his method of approaching the game made his multiple position changes not only possible, but vastly successful. Diehl finished his career with just one Pro Bowl appearance in 2009, but his impact was felt by the results he was able to help the Giants achieve during his tenure in New York.

The next example of this atypical transition was made by Los Angeles Rams, and former Cincinnati Bengal Andrew Whitworth. Whitworth was a prototypical left tackle who started every game he played in from his redshirt freshman season until the Bengals drafted him 55th overall in 2006 with hopes he’d be their left tackle of the future. Although, there were some pre-draft concerns about his fit as an elite left tackle in the NFL. Nonetheless, Whitworth started at left tackle during his rookie season in 2006, but was moved to left guard from 2007 to 2009 before transitioning back to left tackle. Cincinnati again moved him back to guard in 2013 to cover up for injuries on their line, and he was moved there yet again in 2016.

During his NFL career, despite the brief detours to the guard position, Whitworth dispelled any kinds of doubts about his fit at left tackle. At 36—he turns 37 in December—he’s still going. Whitworth earned NFL Top 100 honors entering the 2018 season, as voted on by his peers, finishing at No. 87, just one season after being ranked Pro Football Focus’ 36th-best player in the NFL, for his play at left tackle.

Now, unlike Diehl, Bitonio was a left tackle at Nevada. He had the experience at the position, but there were also some concerns about his fit at left tackle at the NFL level, which had similar echoes to Whitworth’s pre-draft scouting reports. Bitonio was pegged as a guard prospect in multiple projections, and the Browns seemed to agree as he played there in his initial four seasons in the league. But like the others who have made the transition, Bitonio has the pedigree, the size and the experience to successfully pull off the switch to starting NFL left tackle.

Bitonio also expressed the same kind of selfless attitude Diehl rolled with while playing Swiss Army Knife for the Giants for so many years.

“(Head) Coach (Hue) Jackson wants to put the best five offensive lineman on the field, and right now, he thinks that is with me at left tackle,” Bitonio said after being notified of the switch. “I am going to try and be the best left tackle I can be, and if something happens to where I have to go play left guard again, then I will try to be ready for that, as well.

“It is just what is going to help our team win the most games.”

Will Bitonio’s story end in multiple Super Bowls for himself and the Browns, along with some minor accolades accrued along the way? The Browns may not see him as a long-term fix for their left tackle position in the post-Joe Thomas world, but he could potentially finish his career like Whitworth, consistently finishing among the most respected left tackles in the game.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

Either way, the Browns and their fans will be thrilled if he can make the transition and protect the quarterback better than Shon Coleman or Spencer Drango were able to accomplish since Thomas’ departure.

Then again, that bar is very, very low.

You can pick up the 2018 Football Outsiders Almanac here.