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The continuing journey of Ethan Pocic

Browns center has had his own trials and tribulations

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During this past off-season, without any type of warning whatsoever, the Browns released center J.C. Tretter.

No drama leading up to the waiver wire transaction, no hidden messages, no leaked information to the media, or any type of disappointment with his performance. After all, Cleveland’s offensive line has been tagged as one of the league’s best. Tretter was considered the anchor having spent five years with the club after being drafted in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL draft.

In fact, the front office had extended Tretter’s second contract from $16.75 million to $32.5 million just a few years earlier in the fall of 2019. The question arose if the Browns were so satisfied with his play and were considered the stalwart of the line, why was he cut?

Simple answer: he was paid too much.

Cleveland is an analytics team and analytics state that certain players who play certain positions are entitled to making bank whereas all other positions are considered expendable. This equates to a certain budget price range.

Tretter made $9.1 million in 2021. He was set to make $10.85 million this season. To the analytics spreadsheet, that is way too much to pay a center. The fact that he was only on the books for $1.625 million in dead money for the upcoming year if they released him was a huge plus. So, he found his name on the waiver wire.

Plus, Tretter had signed his contract with the old regime before analytics became a thing. During the 2019 season, then-GM John Dorsey inked him to that $32.5 million extension which would keep the talented athlete in-house for another three years.

When news of Tretter’s release, heads became slightly cocked, jaws dropped, eyebrows raised and a double-handed elevation with the words, “Whaaaattt...?” were the norm.

Arizona Cardinals v Cleveland Browns
Coach Bill Callahan
Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images

But Browns’ fans were instantly reminded that on the payroll was the best offensive line coach in the entire NFL: Bill Callahan. Although the front office had provided a shift in personnel, not to worry because Coach C would work his magic just like he has done since he arrived in Cleveland in 2020. He has faced numerous instances of an adversary within the O-Line ranks such as having both tackles injured, shuffling players at various positions and even a guy named Blake being introduced to his QB just hours before being inserted into the fourth quarter of a playoff game.

All during training camp, there was extensive competition for the starting center position. Last year’s backup Nick Harris had the inside track. Signed in free agency as competition was former Seattle Seahawk Ethan Pocic who had 40 NFL starts. Dawson Deaton was a three-year starter at center in college and was selected in the seventh round. Also brought in was undrafted free agent Brock Hoffman who had 32 college starts at center.

Add the fact that guards Blake Hance (yes, the same Blake) and Michael Dunn each had some center experience either in high school or college and were considered fallbacks. So filling the position appeared effortless.

Then came “the week.”

First, Harris was bull-rushed by 320-pound DT DaVon Hamilton on the second play of the first preseason game against Jacksonville, and Harris’ knee buckled. Then four days later, Deaton also suffered a knee injury. As the Browns had to trim their roster down to 85 players, both were placed on IR.

Enter the Pocic

Pocic (pronounced poh-zik) entered the Jacksonville game and played the remainder of the first half while Hoffman manned the second half. For the remainder of the preseason, Pocic was penciled in as the starting center while other players made maneuvers for the backup position or perhaps to knock Pocic from his perch.

Cleveland Browns v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

That never happened. Pocic started against Carolina in the opening game and has been the starter ever since.

Hoffman was cut and then signed to the practice squad. Hance was waived and picked up by San Francisco. Dunn plays the sixth offensive lineman in goal-line situations and is listed as the backup center.

And all the while, Pocic is doing.....great, actually.

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Pocic (6’-6”, 309 pounds) was a standout center while at LSU where he started 37 games (27 at center, nine at right guard, and one at left tackle). He was named First Team All-SEC as well as First Team All-American and made a name for himself at the Senior Bowl. He was also a finalist for the Rimington Trophy given to the nation’s most outstanding center.

“We’re excited to bring Ethan into the mix,” Browns Executive Vice President and GM Andrew Berry said after signing Pocic. “He’s really played, from his time at LSU and into the pros, up and down the offensive line. We always want guys who are versatile, so we think it’ll be a good veteran signing for us.”

He was a second-round draft pick of the Seattle Seahawks in 2017. He then made the NFL All-Rookie Team where he started five games at left guard and six games at right guard.

Last year he experienced several injury issues including a back issue as well as a knee sprain. Both injuries landed him on IR. He also missed time in training camp with a hamstring injury. He did start the Seahawks’ final 10 games and earned the highest run-blocking grade of his career (76.0) from Pro Football Focus.

The veteran center had only one penalty all year. Yes, you read that correctly.

On the flip side, his pass protection took a hit from 2020 to 2021. Pocic allowed more QB hits and the same number of pressures (18) compared to the season before. His pass protection grade of 43.8 wasn’t pretty and ranked him at #31 out of 33 qualified centers with 500 or more snaps.

Seattle Seahawks v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

During the off-season, SB Nation’s Seattle community page Field Gulls ran a story penned by John Morgan about Pocic and his value to their club. Morgan writes:

“Re-signing Ethan Pocic is an assertive step toward contention or collapse. Signing or letting Pocic walk is a decision defined by managing downside. Not signing him entails likely paying more for his replacement, risking finding an ill-fitting talent—a mistake the Seattle Seahawks have made over and over again or investing precious draft resources on a position typically slow to develop. It is undeniable that when he’s healthy and in the flow of the offense, Seattle is more coordinated and less mistake-prone.”

While with Seattle Pocic started 40 games in five seasons. Although versatile, his experience at playing center is why the Browns signed him during the free agency period on a one-year deal for $1.1875 million.

The road labeled 2022

The fact that Cleveland inked Pocic to their roster almost one month after Tretter was released was viewed more as camp competition and quality backup material more than anything else. After all, if Seattle had drafted him so high in the second round and had spent so much time, money, and coaching on him, why would they just let him sign away? The Seahawks had a name for having offensive line issues as evidenced by their quarterback Russell Wilson airing out his concerns about this unit to the media almost on a weekly basis.

Pocic’s rookie contract was up. Was the decision to not re-sign him a Seattle decision or was he wanting to escape the constant badgering by his own quarterback? 40 starts for the Seahawks is a lot of games to be a part of.

He has a very rare commodity for an offensive lineman in that he can see the field during live moments and does not get stressed. Pocic is excellent at not being surprised by stunts.

A weight room junkie, Pocic was considered the quarterback along the offensive line. The leader. A leader.

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And coming to Cleveland wasn’t instantaneous. The free agency period had been in full swing for a solid month before he signed his deal with the Browns. To top it all off, it wasn’t even a long-term contract which is usually viewed as a “prove it” agreement.

And now he is starting on one of the best lines in the league? On a club that likes to cram the run game down their opponent’s throats? Wasn’t it just yesterday that when Harris went down folks were screaming for the Browns to give Tretter a call and suit up again?

The fact is, Harris had just two NFL starts before he was lost for the year. Pocic was a seasoned veteran for insurance purposes. And now Cleveland is calling in that policy with steady play.

Throughout this young season, Pocic has offered nothing but a steady performance each week with production in the middle of the line. Of course, it helps that he is usually book-ended by two Pro Bowlers Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller. An injury has sidelined Teller for the past two games.

One play against Cincinnati really stands out. With just over five minutes left in the second quarter, the Browns had the ball on Cincy’s three, the handoff to RB Nick Chubb was designed to go right. But Pocic had driven his man DT B.J. Hill so far to the rightside that Chubb simply cut back into the hole created by his center and scored easily for the game’s first points.

Later in the fourth quarter with a 25-6 lead with 8:48 left in the game, Chubb takes the ball and heads straight up the field from the 11. He runs in between Pocic and LG Joel Bitonio unmolested as Pocic had manhandled his man DT Zach Carter who had no chance of even a jersey grab. Chubb’s touchdown built a 32-6 insurmountable lead.

Chubb leads the league in rushing while the club is currently ranked third. You don’t just do that with multiple Pro Bowl players and a center who can’t hold his own.

Analyzing the Pocic

Pro Football Focus (PFF) grades out the Browns’ offensive line as a top unit this year. This success is based on there is not having a single player in this starting group that is viewed as a weak link.

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Currently, Pocic is rated as the fifth-best center in the league according to PFF. So far he has committed one penalty, allowed a single sack, has zero QB hits, and allowed just one pressure with 560 snaps.

His current overall PFF grade is 82.6. He is ranked the third-highest offensive lineman on the Browns behind Bitonio (91.3) and Teller (85.3)

He has skills at engaging one man at the line then bouncing off and taking on the linebacker at the next level. He is also called upon to pull once in a while.

Offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt has taken notice of Pocic’s tenure as told to the Akron Beacon-Journal:

“He is quietly playing extremely well. There are not a lot of glaring issues in his game at all. He’s really stepped in and not missed a beat. He does a great job of getting everybody directed in the run game. Rarely is there a situation where we’re unsure of where we’re going and who guys are going to. He’s really good in communication, understands our protection schemes extremely well [and] gets us in the right calls in protection as well. And then physically, he’s playing well right now. Really happy with where Ethan is.”

Pocic has always been known as a player who moves well but his movement to the second level is what has set him apart so far. This wide open offense he is a part of works well with his athleticism. Although he needs refinement with pass blocking, his run blocking is quite productive.

He does possess a more slender build than most defensive tackles he faces and this in itself appears to be an issue. But Pocic, age 27, wins by leverage, technique and a physicality that comes to the surface when seal blocks are needed. He also possesses great balance for a man that stands 6’-6”.

He is also a finisher when he is locked on a guy. Known as an excellent communicator, Pocic makes certain that his group is on the same page especially in the run game.

Ever since Pocic arrived in Cleveland and has been getting coached up by Coach C and offensive line coach Scott Peters, he has learned techniques that he had never seen before which are now part of his toolbox including additional instincts.

Pocic has one thing that his linemates know is always front-and-center: he is all business. His famous words to his teammates are “Let’s lock-in.”

The reason is that he is always locked in. Po is always 100% football when he’s out on any playing field.

Going forward

If Pocic can finish the year without any injury, next year in training camp the job is definitely his to lose.

Is he playing on a Pro Bowl level this year? Not so fast. But he is winning his zones and has improved as a run blocker in Coach C’s scheme.

Not too shabby for a “contingency plan” in case Harris faltered.

Bitonio told the Akron Beacon-Journal regarding Pocic’s success so far:

“He’s done a good job. Our offense is very multiple. So even from team to team, if you come into our offense as a center, you have to know a lot of rules and a lot of things, and we get a lot of defenses that some other teams don’t get because we play three tight ends a lot. He’s taken that and done a great job. He’s really learned the offense and been a good center for us. In our offense, too, we ask our centers to pull, pass protect a lot one on one, which other teams don’t really do. He’s really grown from that.”

So what should the Browns do with Pocic?

As the anchor is the league’s best rushing offense, the one-year contract with a veteran minimum base salary of $1.035 million plus a $152,500 signing bonus he signed last spring isn’t going to cut it.

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Pocic arrived in Cleveland in an attempt that new beginnings and an elite offensive line coach who allow him to showcase his skills and prove that he remains a solid starting center. The fact that after Seattle he didn’t secure that second lucrative contract while he languished in free agency was not his reason for coming to the Browns.

He knows that in the NFL nothing is guaranteed and every player must make the most of their circumstances.

One thing about Cleveland GM Andrew Berry is that he attempts to get ahead of any looming extension and not make it an issue. Or worse, lose a player they deem has great value.

So this should not shock anyone for the front office to get in front of Pocic as a long-term solution to the continued success of the offensive line and sign him to a multi-year agreement. And get this done much sooner than later.

This deal doesn’t have to break the boundaries of analytics in order to get done. Brian Allen of the Los Angeles Rams signed a three-year contract for $18 million with $10 million guaranteed. New England Patriots veteran David Andrews penned a four-year deal worth $19 million.

There are several centers in the league that have signed much better deals, but these numbers would work with the club’s analytics at heart.

Has Pocic earned getting a long-term agreement in place? Should the Browns reach out to him about keeping him in-house going forward?

The bigger question might be: what if Cleveland allowed a proven commodity to move on after a great season with the anticipation that the injured guy is actually the answer or not?