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Fight for the Browns starting center position

Losing anchor Tretter leaves huge gash along offensive line

NFL: AUG 03 Cleveland Browns Training Camp
Nick Harris (53) 
Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Some football teams pass more they run the ball. Some are a good mix. The Browns don’t attempt to fool anyone: they are made to run.

Just look at their running backs room. Nick Chubb has been named to three consecutive Pro Bowls and was elected First Team All-Pro last year. Kareem Hunt is a former NFL rushing champion and would be a full-time starter on most NFL clubs. D’Ernest Johnson came out as a household name last year when he busted out for 146 yards against Denver and then had 123 yards versus Cincinnati in the season finale.

The Browns have the horses. That is not a disputable concept.

That being said, the running backs can’t do their God-given work by themselves. They don’t open holes by moving 300-pound men out of gaps. The offensive line does that.

And Cleveland has one of the league’s best offensive line units.

Each of the guards, Wyatt Teller and Joel Bitonio, were selected to the Pro Bowl this past season. It was Bitonio’s fourth Pro Bowl nod. Although Teller, considered by many as the best guard in the league, was voted to his first Pro Bowl, he has sniffed the adulation last year before becoming injured. In 2021, Bitonio was also named First Team All-Pro while Teller made the Second Team All-Pro list.

Both tackles, Jack Conklin and Jedrick Wills, have received praise but so far no hardware. Both men have had injury issues.

Arizona Cardinals v Cleveland Browns
J.C. Tretter
Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Center J.C. Tretter has been the rock of the line for eight seasons. This will change in 2022 as the Browns waived him on March 15.

Tretter was taken in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL draft. He signed a standard fourth round deal for three-years worth $16.75 million. During the 2019 season, then-GM John Dorsey inked him to an extension worth $32.5 million which would keep Tretter in-house for another three years.

Now, the Browns are an analytics team. And analytics state to pay the offensive tackles, quarterback and WR1, but nobody else along the offense to big money contracts. And Tretter was paid $9.1 million in 2021. To the analytics system, that is way too much to pay a center. The fact that he was only on the books for $1.625 in dead money for the upcoming year if they released him was a huge plus. So, he found his name on the waiver wire.

Cleveland remains a run-first offense. And a running team needs capable run blockers along the offensive line.

Now what? What is the plan at center for the Browns going forward?

So, uhh... who’s calling protections at the line now?

There are several players who are in line for Tretter’s starting center position. Before releasing Tretter on March 15, the only player listed as his backup was Nick Harris.

Nick Harris (6’-1”, 293 pounds) – Cleveland Browns

Harris came to the Browns as a fifth round draft pick in the 2020 NFL draft from Washington. He signed a four year deal worth $3.609 million including a $314,648 signing bonus. In 2022, he will earn a base salary of $895,000.

Harris was set into motion for the starting center position back in the preseason. Tretter had sat out all 11-on-11 drills the week prior to the Atlanta Falcons exhibition game. Both Blake Hance and Harris had taken first team snaps all week. In the end, it was Harris who started.

This would prove vital as Tretter was placed on the Reserve/COVID list later in December when the Browns were facing the Green Bay Packers. Although Harris had lined up at center in the preseason, he had yet to take a snap on offense at all during the season.

Was Harris’ emergence and the fact that he had exceeded expectations the reason the Browns moved on from Tretter? Or was it the almost $10 million cap hit due this year?

NFL: NOV 29 Seahawks at Washington Football Team Photo by Lee Coleman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Ethan Pocic (6’-6”, 309 pounds) – Seattle Seahawks

Pocic was a standout center while at LSU where he started 37 games (27 at center, nine at right guard, 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. “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.

On the flipside, 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.

While with Seattle Pocic started 40 games among 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.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 04 Texas Kickoff - Texas Tech v Houston Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Dawson Deaton (6’-6”, 305 pounds) – Texas Tech

Berry selected Deaton in Round 7 at pick #246 in this year’s draft. He was a three-star recruit coming out of Frisco, Texas.

He is very versatile in that he can line up at all five offensive line positions but excels at center.

Deaton has jackhammer hands with light, quick feet but only adequate overall burst. Quick to pick up blitzes without showing panic, though he won’t dominate and can lose balance while overextending.

Deaton will need some work on his pass protection techniques, but is a very solid run blocker which is what he was drafted to do.

Here is the scouting report on Deaton on Sports Illustrated:

“Deaton is a lot bigger than the prototypical center prospect, being listed at 6’6”. His ability won’t necessarily jump off the page, but his consistency will be noticed. The fact he can play all five positions on the offensive line will be valued at the next level when you combine that with his well-rounded ability.”

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 25 Richmond at Virginia Tech Photo by Lee Coleman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

C/OG Brock Hoffman (6’-3”, 310 pounds) - Virginia Tech

Hoffman was signed as an undrafted free agent shortly after the NFL draft had concluded.

He has natural bend to sell the inside lanes. Nasty demeanor with great foot speed. Needs to get stronger in lower half to anchor point of attack. Possesses limited range and will have issues keeping his balance at times. Solid run blocker that is fluid getting to the next level. Started 46 college games including 32 at the center position.

Here is the scouting report on Deaton on The Draft Network:

“Hoffman offers good size, mobility, and experience with sufficient power and foot work. He is a competitive blocker with sufficient body control and has proven to be a reliable player. When it comes to concerns, Hoffman has to find more consistency with his hand placement and timing and would benefit from adding more functional strength. While Hoffman offers appeal as a reserve offensive lineman at the next level with positional flexibility, his absence of any above average traits tempers his projection. He very well could be an overachiever and he enjoyed a good college career, but he’s likely a depth player at the next level.”