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Browns O-line takes big jump in PFF rankings

Cleveland upgraded the tackle positions, but will improved line play equate to more wins?

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Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

The Cleveland Browns struggled with numerous issues during the 2019 season, many of which that were self inflicted.

That was most evident along the offensive line, where the poor play of right guards Eric Kush (an overall grade of 45.4 from Pro Football Focus) and Wyatt Teller (overall grade of 56.7) was overshadowed by the mess at the tackle positions, where left tackle Greg Robinson (overall grade of 66.9) and right tackle Chris Hubbard (overall grade of 50.6) were a weekly source of agita.

It was no surprise, then, that the offensive line finished the season ranked at No. 23 by Pro Football Focus, down 21 spots from the unit that helped quarterback Baker Mayfield set a record for touchdown passes by a rookie and energize the team the year before.

General manager Andrew Berry was obviously paying attention as his major focus this past offseason was fixing the line by signing right tackle Jack Conklin in free agency and selecting left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft.

Adding Conklin and Wills to incumbents Joel Bitonio at left guard and J.C. Tretter at center was enough for PFF to boost the offensive line back up the rankings, with Steve Palazzolo putting the Browns at No. 6 in his preseason rankings:

The No. 1 priority this offseason in Cleveland was shoring up the offensive tackle position, and no team invested more there than the Browns. They signed Jack Conklin to a three-year, $42 million deal to play right tackle and used the No. 10 overall pick on Jedrick Wills Jr. to play left tackle. Conklin has the No. 11 run-blocking grade among tackles since entering the league in 2016, and he’s an above-average pass protector — but not the kind of leave-on-an-island tackle who usually garners the biggest contract. Still, Conklin is a clear upgrade at right tackle, and the most immediate gains should be seen in the run game. Wills played on the right side at Alabama and steps in as the left tackle of the future. He’s an explosive run blocker who has developed nicely in pass protection, where he allowed only seven pressures over his last nine games at Alabama in 2019.

At left guard, Joel Bitonio has the No. 13 grade in the league since 2016, including the No. 3 pass-blocking grade at 90.9. Center J.C. Tretter’s 77.3 overall grade ranks 11th among centers over the past four years, and his 89.4 pass-blocking grade ranks second during that time. That leaves right guard as the Browns’ biggest question mark. Wyatt Teller has been a solid pass protector at that spot, but his run blocking has been sub-par. He heads into a pivotal Year 3 where many offensive linemen take steps forward in development.

Chris Hubbard, last year’s starting right tackle, is now a swing tackle. He’s a nice option to have as a depth piece with three good years of play under his belt. The Browns finished just 23rd in PFF’s 2019 offensive line rankings, but they have the pieces to make the biggest move in the NFL — especially if Wills develops quickly as a rookie.

Browns fans quickly grew tired last season of watching Mayfield repeatedly leave the pocket either from real pressure or expected pressure, and subsequently see a play breakdown almost before it started.

That was one issue that ESPN’s Bill Barnwell highlighted in his recent breakdown of Mayfield, using the fourth-and-goal play at the end of the game against the Los Angeles Rams as an example:

Mayfield had exhibited a habit during the first three weeks of bailing to his right under pressure, either imagined or real. L.A. pass-rusher Clay Matthews undoubtedly noticed. Once overmatched left tackle Greg Robinson was beaten at the snap by Dante Fowler Jr., Mayfield started to bail out of the pocket. Instead of rushing to try to get to where Mayfield was, Matthews barely engaged with right tackle Justin McCray and instead traveled to where Mayfield was going. The subsequent pressure from Matthews forced Mayfield into a desperate throw off his back foot, and while he actually gave receiver Damion Ratley a chance to catch the ball, the throw was intercepted by safety John Johnson III to end the game. Even if the line had managed to protect Mayfield, no one was remotely open. On one of the most important plays of their season, the Browns had absolutely no hope of succeeding.

Having a stout offensive line is not a guarantee of success — the Browns have been sound along the line numerous times in recent seasons and still managed to find ways to lose — but it certainly can’t hurt.

There was a lot of blame to go around for how things fell apart in 2019, but the offensive line was one of the major contributors. If PFF is right, the Browns should not see a repeat of those issues this fall.