The Browns offensive line has been a work in progress the last few seasons. But, year-by-year, this unit not only got better, but flourished in 2018. Which was great news for rookie QB Baker Mayfield.
There are two positions in football that are paramount to a team’s success: quarterback and offensive line. Yeh, yeh, offensive line is really five positions. But, essentially, the O-Line works in unison as one cohesive unit. When the O-Line is bad, rushing yards go down, interceptions go up, passing yards per game decrease, QB hits and hurries increase, scoring is down and receiver passing yards decline each game.
In essence, the entire offense suffers.
Even though the Browns ended the 2018 season with a mediocre 7-8-1 record, the O-Line was rated as one of the league’s elite units.
And the franchise has tried to make this group better in each year’s draft as follows: 2018 OG/C Austin Corbett (Round 2), 2017 OT Roderick Johnson (Round 5), 2016 OT Shon Coleman (Round 3) & OG Spencer Drango (Round 5), 2015 C Cameron Erving (Round 1 pick #19), 2014 OG Joel Bitonio (Round 2), 2013 OT Garrett Gilkey (Round 7), 2012 OT Mitchell Schwartz (Round 2) & OG Ryan Miller (Round 5), 2011 OT Jason Pinkston (Round 5), 2010 OG Shawn Lauvao (Round 3).
That’s 11 guys taken over the past nine NFL drafts. Plus, in 2007 and 2009 the club used their first-round picks on OT Joe Thomas and C Alex Mack, respectively. Both were valued parts of the Browns’ offense for years as Mack spent seven years in Cleveland while Thomas recently retired after 11 seasons (and 10 Pro Bowls) at LT.
And then there were the free agent signings such as OG Kevin Zeitler in 2017 (Bengals), OT Greg Robinson (2018/Lions), C J.C. Tretter (2017/Packers), OT Chris Hubbard (2018/Steelers), OT Desmond Harrison (2018/undrafted), and OG Earl Watford (2018/Bears).
With Tretter (6’4”, 307 pounds, age 28) entrenched at center, Joel Bitonio and Kevin Zeitler at the guard positions, with Chris Hubbard and Greg Robinson on the outsides at tackle, this unit garnered an overall grade of “B” in 2018 on the website waitingfornextyear.com. Backups last season were OG’s Corbett and Watford, plus Harrison as swing tackle.
The 2018 O-Line depth chart at the beginning of the year was much different than how the final lineup was configured. And so changes were made bringing Robinson (6’5”, 330 pounds, age 26) into the starting LT position in Week 9.
And that worked perfectly. With Mayfield having a tremendous rookie season, the O-Line became pass blocking rocks of granite while the run game also improved.
2018 Offensive Line Bliss
According to the folks at Pro Football Focus, the Browns enjoyed one of the best offensive lines in the NFL in 2018.
Big-Time Throw % (from clean pocket)
Russell Wilson (Seahawks): 9.7%
Baker Mayfield (Browns): 6.8%
Andy Dalton (Bengals): 6.0%
The biggest strength was the line’s interior with Tretter, Zeitler and Bitonio. The idea was to leave this trio alone so that the throwing lanes would remain open and allow interior run gaps. The Browns should make sure that Mayfield remains vertical with minimal QB hits each game.
Robinson was the last key to this lineup’s success. Once Harrison was pulled and Robinson was installed, the entire character of the O-Line calmed down. During the off-season, the Browns rewarded Robinson with a one-year $9 million extension after signing a minimal veteran contract of $790,000 in June of 2018. The extension seems more of a “prove-it” deal that he can cement the LT position for an entire season and continue to improve. Reportedly, the Browns had talked to Washington State’s Andre Dillard at the combine who is a natural LT, so management is definitely thinking the “what if” card. Dillard would have been a possibility when the Browns had their first-round pick at number 17 before the OBJ trade.
Mayfield was one of Robinson’s biggest cheerleaders once he was inserted as the starter. In the final games, he only gave up a single sack and graded out at 68.7. He is still young at age 26 and if his 2019 season is successful, then certainly Dorsey would reward him with a long-term deal with more fundage. The end goal is for Robinson to become a “top left tackle.”
Zeitler or Bust
When the Browns traded their best offensive lineman, Kevin Zeitler, to the New York Giants on March 8 for pass rushing guru Olivier Vernon, there were a lot of questions raised. The obvious was: why?
Two words: Austin Corbett.
Zeitler came to the Browns via free agency in 2017 with a five-year $60 million contract. At the time, this made him the highest paid guard in the league and he has proven to be worth every penny. He originally was a first-round pick in 2012 from Wisconsin of division rival Cincinnati Bengals and subsequently made the All-Rookie Team. He started 71 of 72 games for the Bengals.
Since becoming a Brown, nobody has disputed his value, professionalism or abilities. Along with fellow guard Bitonio, the duo had cemented one of the best guard tandems in the NFL. Although a very good run blocker, Zeitler excels at pass protection. In 2018 he allowed a mere 11 total QB pressures for the entire season. According to Pro Football Focus, he was the sixth-rated guard last season and started all 32 contests during his two-year stint thus making him very durable. He was rated the best pass-blocking guard with a 93.0 rating. Despite an elite season in 2018, he was omitted from his first Pro Bowl nod.
But now Zeitler is closing on the age of 30 with that big contract. Corbett was taken as the first player in the second round of the 2018 draft. This is referred to as “first-round talent with second-round pay.” He signed a standard second-round four-year deal worth $7.568 million coupled with a $3.584 million signing bonus. Corbett, age 23, had a full year to get acclimated to the professional game and now the Browns believe he is ready to step into Zeitler’s spot for about $2 million a year instead of Zeitler’s roughly $12 million a season. Plus, Corbett saw live game action in 11 games as a rookie.
Another question is why Zeitler for Vernon straight up? Two words: Emmanuel Ogbah.
Ogbah himself was the first player taken in the second-round in 2016. As a rookie, he was very productive and was an asset in the pass rush coupled with his 5 ½ sacks. He was decent in the run game as evidenced by contributing 53 tackles and started all 16 games opposite DE Jamie Meder.
But since then, his production has become stagnant and the beast the Cleveland brass assumed they had selected has put up very pedestrian numbers for where he was drafted. Ogbah has looked ineffective as a pass rusher and has had limited production as a key run stopper at times as well. At the present, he is viewed as valuable depth instead of a stud. He was taken with the idea that he would develop into this elite pass rusher with enormous upside, and simply hasn’t. If you were to redraft the entire 2016 NFL college draft, he might be taken in the third or fourth-round instead of essentially a late first-rounder.
So, GM John Dorsey looked at getting a viable replacement. The Giants needed a superior right guard with experience and the Browns needed a demon pass rusher. In the ensuing trade, both clubs got what they wanted and had a requisite for.
Did the Browns still want Kevin Zeitler? Of course they did. But they had a young guy in the wings waiting his turn and the front office decided that an excellent, proven pass-rusher was much too valuable not to pursue and hopefully make the defense better without damaging the O-Line.
Quality Depth, or just Depth?
You have to hand it to GM John Dorsey. If nothing else, he has done his best at bringing in a multitude of bodies in order to compete for positions.
While the Browns had one of the best offensive lines in the NFL last year and traded their best player in order to solidify the pass rush, Dorsey was plenty busy bringing in new guys to help with the starters and obtain bodies to strive to become the starter, or become the first one off the bench in case of an injury.
And injuries happen all the time in the league – in fact, every single game. But an injury on the O-Line is quite a bit different than an injury at any other position. The O-Line is basically one complete unit. If the QB is the steering wheel, then the offensive line is the engine.
From March 14 to March 22, Dorsey inked several veterans most likely as quality backups such as OG Eric Kush, OT Kenneth Lamm, and finally OG Bryant Witzmann. Each of these players will provide experienced competition in training camp, plus add proficient standbys ready to play if needed, or may actually start.
Witzmann (6’7”, 300 pounds) is 28 years old and has four seasons under his belt. He has played in 37 games with 20 starts after a stellar college career at South Dakota State. The other new guard, Eric Kush (6’4”, 317 pounds), has played six seasons with 12 starts amongst 33 games. He is 29 years old. Lamm (6’5”, 310) is just 26 years old with four seasons, played in 55 games with 24 starts.
Watford left via free agency, but the Browns have also signed Stanford OT David Bright (6’5”, 305 pounds, age 23), two centers in Kyle Friend (6’2”, 305 pounds, age 24) and Kyle Kalis (6’4”, 306 pounds, age 25), plus Villanova OT Brad Seaton (6’9”, 330 pounds, age 25). Each of these players have had either limited time in the league or minimal game experience.
So far, the tally is a dozen qualified candidates to continue the success in which the 2018 Browns offensive line has come to love.
The Browns certainly have all the components on paper to have an explosive offense. With RB Nick Chubb a year under his belt, TE David Njoku a bona fide receiving menace, WR Jarvis Landry always a threat plus rookie WR Antonio Callaway the speedster, RB Duke Johnson, QB Baker Mayfield, newly acquired WR Odell Beckham, Jr. and eventually the services of RB Kareem Hunt, name an NFL club with this much talent – and at every skill position.
And with this much attention on those guys, the unit that should shine above all else will be the offensive line. True, these players don’t score touchdowns, kick field goals, get drafted by your fantasy team, run crossing routes, make one-handed grabs and procure the glory. But without these men, neither would the skill position players. The other clubs in the AFC North have numerous talented pass rushers that can create mayhem for young offensive linemen.
Add to this the possibility that the Browns may take another young offensive lineman in the upcoming April 25-27 draft.
In the second-round, OG Michael Dieter (6’6”, 321 pounds) of Wisconsin should be available when Cleveland selects at number 49. Wisconsin is well-known for spitting out nasty offensive linemen and Dieter is just another in a long line of big, strong run blockers with exceptional mobility. In Round 3 look for OT Bobby Evans (6’4”, 312 pounds) of Oklahoma, and a pair of offensive guards in Dalton Risner (6’4”, 312 pounds) of Kansas State and Ohio State’s Michael Jordan (6’5”, 312 pounds) at pick number 80.
The Browns have three picks in the fifth-round, a perfect place to take a young player to groom and provide depth with the idea that one day they may become a starter and key contributor. GM Dorsey may fall in love with OT Oli Udoh (6’5”, 323 pounds) of Elon with pick number 144, then OT Trey Pipkins (6’6”, 309 pounds) or Oklahoma OG Ben Powers (6’4”, 307 pounds) with the 155th selection, and finally with pick number 170 take Notre Dame OG Alex Bars (6”5”, 312 pounds).
For now, Corbett should slide very nicely into Zeitler’s vacant position. Plus, the Browns still have another great guard in Bitonio. In fact, last season Pro Football Focus rated their OG’s on “Pressure Rate Allowed” on their own QB. The Browns were big winners on this list:
2018 Pressure Rate Allowed (among guards with 250+ snaps)
Kevin Zeitler (Browns): 1.7%
Brandon Brooks (Eagles): 1.8%
Joel Bitonio (Browns): 2.3%
Yes, Zeitler is now gone, but Bitonio remains and is set to have another banner year. In fact, he ranked third amongst all OG’s in pass-blocking grades with 86.8. In contrast, newly-signed OG Witzmann graded 49.8, good enough for 65th, while Kush was ranked 52th with a 56.5 grade.
Corbett is the wild card this training camp. Being a high second-round selection with a full season after learning from the veterans, if he can come through and fill Zeitler’s position at RG admirably, then there is no question the 2019 version of the Browns O-Line should continue to gel and shine.
And if they do, with all the explosive weapons the offense now possesses, the real stars will be the big guys up front who will make sure Mayfield has the time to throw, and adequate holes opened for Chubb, Johnson and Hunt.
Mayfield is an extremely gifted athlete whose success won’t entirely be attributed to his O-Line. But if he is going to develop into a Top-10 signalcaller in the NFL he will continue to need equally talented players operating with a formidable Browns’ offensive pass-blocking group.
There is little doubt the success of the offensive line will ultimately become the success of the offense in 2019.