This last week the Cleveland Browns surprised a great many by announcing they were moving Left Guard Joel Bitonio to Left Tackle, a position which the Browns haven’t had to even think about since 2007, the year they drafted the great Joe Thomas. With the 3rd pick in that year’s draft, the Browns would solidify one of the more important positions in the game with a player who, in my humble, if estimable (and yes a little biased) opinion, will go down as the greatest ever there ever was at protecting the blind side. In about five years we’ll be celebrating his entry into the pro football hall of fame, as he will no doubt make it on his first appearance on the ballot.
Two sad aspects of that tale: despite Thomas’ truly elite play from basically his first snap to his last (and the over 10,000 uninterrupted in between) it never mattered because the quarterbacks he wound up protecting were terrible-to-mediocre at best, and we mostly resided in terrible territory. The other is that his HOF career is now over as it came to an end against Tennessee last season when he collapsed onto the field at FOSFEF just moments after throwing Brian Orakpo to the ground. Thus, Joe’s time with us ended, and in the wake of that sorrow there immediately arose a need on the roster that we haven’t had in over a decade.
That need initially was met by Spencer Drango, a backup guard who was promptly abused by Orakpo and probably put the finishing touches on destroying whatever confidence Cody Kessler may have somehow obtained. I’m not sure Kessler even got off a pass in any of his subsequent appearances. Although, Drango performed much better as the season progressed. Calling it “good” would certainly be a stretch, though from our perspective it’s also hard to gauge when the comparison is the GOAT. Either way, it was clear he wasn’t seen as the answer the 2017 season drew to a close and the 2018 offseason commenced.
When the Browns started this process way back at the beginning of 2016, the word “analytics” was being thrown around heavily when the team hired Paul Depodesta as the new Chief Strategy Officer, pairing with now erstwhile Executive Vice President of Football Operations Sashi Brown. The term itself began taking on a plethora of different meanings depending on who you talk to. Considering the way the team has come to handle roster situations over the last two years, especially with respect to the quarterback position but also other including this Left Tackle conundrum, I think a way that I personally view the approach has to do mostly with providing as many contingency plans as possible.
This has mostly worked up and down the roster. The team essentially threw waves of young players, many acquired with high draft selections, at every position group in the hopes that some would hold down spots, which has happened. This offseason, the new GM John Dorsey addressed those spots which didn’t have strong answers in the first few waves of attempts. The result overall is a good looking, if unproven, young, talented roster.
However, starting Left Tackles aren’t that easy to find. In fact, there’s a paucity of quality Tackles period in the NFL, but the LT’s of course are premium positions due to the nature of their particular task. This was true even with our having more cap space and draft capital than perhaps any team entering any offseason ever.
The question hovered all the way up until just before the start of the free agency period, as to whether or not Thomas would make a return or retire. When it was learned the team was heavily courting Nate Solder, who was basically the only LT available, it pretty well signaled the end. We lost out to the New York Giants on the Solder Derby, and the next highest paid LT of the 2018 Free agency class was...Donald Stephenson, signed by us. He has since retired.
The highest paid Right Tackle was Chris Hubbard, also signed by us, and instantly was assumed to be the new starter on the right side. This was somewhat puzzling given the presence of Shon Coleman, 2016 3rd round pick and 2017 starter, who didn’t play especially poorly last year, albeit with more than his share of penalties. It was presumed therefore that the signing of Hubbard was a sign that the team was ready to move Coleman to LT, where he played in college.
With no real opportunities to upgrade the position outside of Solder via free agency, Cleveland would do what it could do in the draft. Unfortunately, this draft class was particularly weak at the position as well. In order for us to secure the best, we would have had to spend our fourth overall on Mike McGlinchey out of Notre Dame, who ended up going to San Francisco with the ninth pick. Instead, we went with OSU cornerback Denzel Ward, widely regarded as the #1 CB in the draft.
Whether Ward turns out to be the better player remains to be seen, but at first blush I’m quite happy with our decision. I agree with the consensus that Ward was the best CB, and actually the best overall player for us, at number 4. I wasn’t especially high on McGlinchey, nor Kolton Miller, the other OT taken in the top half of round one (#15 overall/Raiders). Isaiah Wynn out of UGA was taken at twenty-three by New England, and also may have been a reach. Again, time will tell, but as the first round drew to a close, the Browns went back on the clock to start day two.
Perhaps like you, I was surprised at the selection of Austin Corbett, the versatile offensive lineman out of Nevada. He was viewed as a guard in the NFL, and we were set at the guard spot with highly paid players in Joel Bitonio and Kevin Zeitler. Seemed odd that we would spend the 33rd overall on a player that didn’t figure to contribute, unless they thought he could play Left Tackle, the position he played at Nevada, where he started for four years after replacing his predecessor at Left Tackle: Joel Bitonio.
In fact, Bitonio and Corbett were friends who trained together prior to us drafting the latter. Considering we had all day to make this decision, I feel like the front office new exactly what it wanted to do and had zero doubts about Corbett being their guy, and it goes back to the contingency mindset. Corbett may have been widely projected as a G in the NFL, but not universally so. Some teams had him rated rather highly as a tackle, as apparently it was viewed at the time, we did:
Austin Corbett was the 2nd or 3rd ranked offensive tackle for multiple teams. Didn't know the #Browns did as well. He wouldn't have lasted much longer.— Eric Galko (@OptimumScouting) April 27, 2018
Better prospect than Joel Bitonio, and could get a shot at left tackle.
Yet when training camp arrived Corbett saw no snaps at LT, instead filling in with the 2nd team at LG. At this point people are really scratching their head at the selection of the guy with the 33rd overall if he was just going to be depth for an already really good LG in Bitonio. This seemed to be codified into preeminence with the declaration of Joe Thomas himself that Corbett wasn’t a Tackle and wasn’t going to be.
While that was going on, apparently the Plan A of moving Coleman over to LT wasn’t working out. At some point we picked up the once highly drafted Greg Robinson to compete for a spot, and he seemed to have taken over the #2 spot on the depth chart behind Coleman, kind of solidifying Thomas’ projection of Corbett. With Coleman unable to garner the confidence of the coaching staff, the decision came down to go to the next option, and that’s Bitonio, who’s never played the position at the NFL level.
Corbett now slides into Bitonio’s spot, which now makes sense with his selection at 33. Was this the plan all along, and if it was why not start camp with that configuration? I think the answer to the first question is: probably not. As to the second, I think they either hoped or expected that Shon Coleman would both take a developmental step forward while also stepping back to the side of the line he anchored at Auburn. If that happens, Bitonio stays at his natural spot, and Corbett becomes quality depth.
Prior to any of that happening, the possibility that Corbett could himself play the position was no doubt explored extensively before being discarded, which is a determination you can only make after drafting the guy and getting him in your house. This is likely why the decision to draft him instead of say Will Hernandez (taken one pick later by the Giants) who was widely regarded as being a better prospect at the G position. In that particular comparison, I’m guessing the calculus was that whatever the dropoff (if any) in talent is overcome by just the possibility that he could have maybe gotten it done at LT, another contingency.
If Bitonio can be the answer at LT, the team will be incredibly fortunate and well situated. While apparently overmatched for T, Corbett should be able to slide right in and do well at LG. Bitonio doesn’t have to be (and won’t be) a continuation of Thomas. That chapter is over - we will never see that level of excellent at the position again. However if Bitonio can be just league average, we can win with that (assuming a lot of other things fall into place). In fact his big contract extension a year ago actually works out to be about league average for OT’s.
Is the situation ideal? No, but the team did everything it could to address the position with what it had to work with. There just aren’t that many good LT’s to go out and get when your HOF’er goes down. All eyes now will be on Bitonio, and if he nails it down we’ll be in pretty good shape in one of the game’s most important of position groups. If not, then next year he can slide back to G and we’ll figure out what to do with Corbett. Likely that scenario involves him supplanting J.C. Tretter, whose contract will end, and us drafting a LT with whatever our highest pick is.
It’s the last contingency, and hopefully one we won’t have to exercise, both because Bitonio’s held down the role and also because our selection will be too low to focus on a single position to target. We’ll see soon enough, the start of the season is but a month out.