The Cleveland Browns have arguably the best offensive line in the NFL - as long as everyone is healthy.
That has rarely been the case this season, however, especially when it comes to the tackles.
Left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. went down in Week 1 with an ankle injury that subsequently forced him to leave the game in Weeks 2 through 4, and sidelined him for Weeks 5 and 6. While he has played every snap since returning to the lineup in Week 7 against the Denver Broncos, it is clear the injury is still impacting his play.
The situation has been even more troublesome on the right side, as Jack Conklin went out with an injury in Week 5 against the Los Angeles Chargers, returned in Week 8 against the Pittsburgh Steelers only to suffer a dislocated elbow, and made it back for the Week 12 game against the Baltimore Ravens only to be lost for the year with a torn patellar tendon.
Under normal circumstances, the situation would have been somewhat manageable by plugging in veteran Chris Hubbard, but he was lost for the season in Week 1.
The Browns have tried to plug the hole primarily with Blake Hance, a backup guard who is doing his best to try and play tackle with predictable results as he is the team’s lowest-graded lineman on a weekly basis.
The situation may have come to a head when the Browns played the Baltimore Ravens as Hance allowed three quarterback pressures and went home with a passing grade of just 25.4 from Pro Football Focus.
With the Ravens coming to town on Sunday, the Browns need to do something, which head coach Kevin Stefanski acknowledged during his media appearance on Monday (quote via a team-provided transcript):
“It is the next man up mentality, and then we have to make sure that we design a gameplan with all of our players in mind. That is what we are working hard on right now. With all of our guys, we are looking at what gives us the best chance, and certainly at the offensive line, you have to replace a guy like Jack, that is not easy. We are working through all of that.”
So what are Cleveland’s options for this Sunday and beyond?
Dance with the one you brought - The Browns could simply stick with Hance and hope that yet another week of working with the first-team offense in practice will finally start to pay off. That hasn’t worked very well so far, of course, but time on task can sometimes work wonders.
Pick up the new one - The Browns could give James Hudson III, the team’s fourth-round selection in the 2021 NFL Draft, another shot. Hudson filled in against the Minnesota Vikings and the Chargers when Wills had to leave those games, and had the start in Week 6 against the Arizona Cardinals. That did not go so well, however, as Hudson allowed three pressures and finished with a team-low grade of 51.5 from Pro Football Focus.
Take a shot and hope it works - Cleveland could turn to tackle Alex Taylor, who has spent the majority of the season on the practice squad, although he had a promotion to the gameday roster in Weeks 6 and 7, but did not play. The Browns originally signed Taylor in 2020 as an undrafted free agent out of South Carolina State and added him to the practice squad on October 26 of last season. He appeared in one game during the regular season.
Taylor did not make Cleveland’s final roster out of training camp this season and spent four weeks on the practice squad with the Chicago Bears before rejoining the Browns. While it is nice to say “he could not do any worse” than Hance or Hudson, having Taylor make his first start against the Ravens may not be the best idea.
Do something that sounds like fun but will bring regret in the morning - One idea floating around is to move Wills to right tackle and then have Hance or Hudson take the start at left tackle.
While Wills did play right tackle in college at Alabama, he has spent every second of his time with the Browns playing on the left side, so moving him to the opposite side of the line and then hoping that a player that has struggled at right tackle will suddenly be able to play left tackle not only weakens both positions, but could be grounds for someone on the coaching staff to be fired.
Bring along a friend and hope for the best - No matter who the Browns turn to, be it Hance, Hudson or Taylor, they are going to need some help, which could come in the form of tight end Miller Forristall, who was signed to the active roster on Tuesday after tight end David Njoku was placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list.
Forristall might not be much of a threat in the passing game, he has never played in a regular-season NFL game let alone catch a pass, but at 6-foot-5 and 245-pounds he could be a player that parks himself next to the right tackle and helps out with chipping and blocking whoever the Ravens line up across from them.
It might not be the ideal plan, but it might be the one that not only helps the Browns claim a much-needed win while also ensuring that quarterback Baker Mayfield is still in one piece come Monday morning.
The Browns are in a tough spot at the right tackle position due to Conklin’s injury.
How they solve the puzzle will go a long way toward deciding just how enjoyable the final five games of this season will be for everyone involved.