NFL GM’s have no issues with paying a ton of cash to offensive tackles. They are critical to any offensive line’s success and are paid the big bucks to protect the franchise’s most valuable asset: their quarterback.
Offensive guards and centers are usually found on the second and third day of the college draft.
Not that there isn’t a guard taken occasionally in the first round mind you. Quenton Nelson was selected by the Indianapolis Colts with the sixth overall pick in the 2018 draft and has since been fitted for a gold jacket with his four Pro Bowls in four years. This past draft the New England Patriots shocked everyone with their choice of Chattanooga guard Cole Strange with the 29th pick in Round 1.
But mostly, guys are drafted in the fourth and fifth rounds like clockwork and eventually find a starting guard position.
Which brings us to Browns’ offensive guard Drew Forbes
Forbes was taken in Round 6 in the 2019 NFL draft. At the time, he was the most scouted college player under GM John Dorsey’s regime. Yes, a guard received all of that attention.
Forbes was a stud at North County High School in Bonne Terre, Missouri where he played soccer, basketball and football. Standing 6’-4”, he played center on the basketball squad and started every game his freshman and sophomore year scoring 226 points. Beginning his junior year, he quit basketball to focus on football where he earned a spot on the First Team All-Missouri Area Red Conference as a left tackle.
Although he had eight college offers (although none were from D-1 schools), he chose to remain close to home and committed to Southeast Missouri State where his great-great-grandfather had attended and played football.
Forbes was a three-year starter as the Redhawks left tackle, where he earned All-Ohio Valley Conference honors twice and was named to the FCS All-American team following his senior season. Forbes also helped lead Southeast Missouri State to its first-ever playoff win as the Redhawks finished 9-4 overall in 2018.
Despite his college success, he was not invited to the Combine nor any college All-Star game. Southeast Missouri did have a pro day in which eight NFL clubs had representation including the Browns.
Cleveland and the other team’s scouts saw an impressive showing from Forbes. His numbers, if compared to other offensive lineman at the Combine, placed him in the Top-12 in five different drills including the 40. There he ran a 4.87 which would have ranked him Number 1 among all linemen.
His projection was fourth to fifth round. WKYC-TV 3 in Cleveland labeled Forbes “the best-kept secret” in the 2019 draft. Sports Illustrated did an anonymous profile pre-draft as “the most overlooked player” in the draft, then announced their man was Forbes.
Dorsey explained the pick of Forbes after the draft:
“He’s got incredible athleticism, so why not try him at left or right tackle? If that doesn’t work, then move inside, I mean that’s how you do the offensive line. Let them see what their natural position is and then move forward. He is a very athletic and talented guy who is mature, tenacious, and smart.”
The Browns scouting department exclaimed that they had never spent so much time and effort on any player before the team drafted Forbes. He then inked a four-year deal worth $2.689 million with a $169,340 signing bonus.
In training camp, the buzz was that Forbes would be in competition against high second round pick Austin Corbett for the right guard slot.
That statement and anticipation is about as close as Forbes has gotten to being a starter on the Browns offensive line.
Forbes competed in the pre-season with Corbett for the right guard spot after starter Kevin Zeitler was traded. At the same time, LT Joe Thomas retired. Corbett had been drafted with the first pick in Round 2 the previous year and was considered to be the RG starter without hesitation going forward.
But Corbett struggled not so much in training camp but in pre-season games. After two games, several media outlets labeled him “the biggest blemish on John Dorsey’s record.” Plainly put, he was a flat-out miss for the Browns. Instead of playing guard, Corbett was regulated to being the backup center instead. Corbett had issues with keeping engagement with defenders and with players who possessed a great first step. Inconsistency in his technique was also an issue as he constantly lost hand battles which helped the defender win plays.
So now Forbes was competing with journeyman Eric Kush who would have great reps followed by horrible plays. Poor reps outnumbered the good ones and he was manhandled at times. But his run blocking was very good.
Forbes injured his knee in the final pre-season game against Detroit when his left leg got rolled up on from behind as he executed a run block. This placed him on IR. At the time, he had a shot at the starting right guard spot or at the very least the backup spot.
Going into the season opener, it was Kush who started at right guard instead. Corbett was listed as backup center while Wyatt Teller was listed as Kush’s backup. Teller came to the Browns in a trade the same day Forbes was hurt and landed on IR.
Going into Week 9, Teller supplanted Kush while Forbes came off IR in mid-November. Forbes played in two games down the stretch and had zero offensive snaps with nine special teams snaps playing on punt team.
One of the most intriguing storylines going into 2020 training camp was the upcoming battle between Teller and Forbes for the starting right guard spot as the Browns had released Kush and traded Corbett.
Then COVID hit. The NFL made numerous moves considering the pandemic, one of which was offering players the option to “opt-out” the entire season for a fixed sum.
The NFL’s offering:
Any player may opt out of participating in the 2020 NFL season for any reason. The player must provide the club with written notice of his election to opt out. Once given, the notice will be irrevocable for the remainder of the 2020 season.
Forbes’ base salary for 2020 was set at $426,174. The opt-out pay for a solid year without football offered was $150,000. But that money was a cash advance which is borrowed against expected earnings in 2021.
Forbes, along with OT Drake Dorbeck, OG Colby Gossett, OG Malcolm Pridgeon and DT Andrew Billings, were the Browns opt-out players for 2020.
Billings and Forbes were the only two players who had a shot at a starting position. Forbes was going to be in the thick of the competition for Cleveland’s starting right guard job. After missing most of the 2019 season due to injury, this would have been the first opportunity for Forbes to earn a significant role with the Browns. Had he not won the starting job, he would have been Cleveland’s backup guard.
Forbes had just bought a farm in Missouri with his wife Emily before the pandemic hit. During the 2020 season, the farm life kept him pretty busy hauling hay and tending livestock.
Did he have regrets not playing in 2020? Certainly. As a professional athlete, you want to play. Your body is conditioned to compete. He dealt with the guilt that perhaps his absence affected the depth of his team. Plus, the financial implications were significant for Forbes.
When he returned for 2021, instead of being the main competitor for the right guard spot, that question had been answered rather loudly by Teller who had been named Second Team All-Pro. What was significant with this nomination is that Teller only played half a season as the starter. He had also been an NFL MVP candidate by NFL.com.
And now going into training camp, what were Forbes’ options? Would he be welcomed back?
What position was Forbes now fighting for?
The Browns had signed Jack Conklin as their new starting right tackle for 2020. They also drafted Jedrick Wills, Jr. with the 10th overall pick in the draft and inserted him at left tackle. The guards were set with Teller and Joel Bitonio. Center was the steady J.C. Tretter. Bitonio along with Teller and Conklin, had been named to the All-Pro team the year before.
So with the offensive line set, where did Forbes now fit after taking off one full year? Yes, he came to training camp in football shape. In fact, hay baling is a very physical aspect of harvesting hay for resale. Forbes was in the best shape of his life.
Because Forbes and the other offensive linemen had been opt-outs, this decimated Cleveland’s offensive line depth entirely. There were only two offensive guards left on the active roster and six offensive linemen altogether. The result was that GM Andrew Berry had to work overtime to find suitable replacements at the 11th hour; and not just players but players who had the versatility to play guard if needed.
With C Nick Harris a sometimes guard along with swing tackle Chris Hubbard, brought in for 2020 were guards Michael Dunn, Cordel Iwuagwu and Jovahn Fair, centers Javon Patterson, Evan Brown, Casey Dunn and Jon Toth, plus tackles Timon Paris, Brady Aiello and Alex Taylor. Each of these athletes either found the practice squad, IR list or were brought up late in the season. Dunn was elevated in mid-November and was a key contributor with line injuries and COVID designations for Conklin, Hubbard, Tretter, Teller and Wills at various intervals.
Plus, there was guard Blake Hance - who was signed off the New York Jets practice squad.
In the playoff win over Pittsburgh, Dunn was playing left guard for Bitonio (COVID scratch) and became injured with a calf issue. There was 9:47 left on the clock with a 42-29 Browns lead. In the locker room before kickoff, Hance and QB Baker Mayfield first met.
“We had Michael Dunn step in at left guard for Joel Bitonio. And then, Michael got hurt and a guy named Blake, that I introduced myself to literally in the locker room before the game, stepped up in the fourth quarter,” Mayfield said moments after the game.
Hance allowed zero sacks and helped on two successful drives which culminated in field goals. It was revealed after the game that head coach Kevin Stefanski had never met Hance due to himself being isolated with COVID.
So now Forbes had that urban legend in his face. How does a franchise cut a guy who comes into the first playoff game since Moses and becomes an unsung hero without even practicing with Mayfield a single play? They don’t. The Browns placed an exclusive-rights free agent tender on Hance March 7, 2022 instead.
All of this was post-Forbes’s season anyway. In a pre-season game against Atlanta he went down in the second quarter in clear pain and went immediately into the medical tent. There, they ruled him out of the game with another knee injury.
Occasionally too high and out of control as a run blocker, Forbes was often dominant during the pre-season in pass protection.
The latest injury placed him on season-ending IR as announced on final cutdown day.
A quick look at the Browns depth chart going into this year’s training camp has Forbes listed at left guard instead of the rightside. He is currently listed fourth behind Bitonio, Dunn, and journeyman Hjalte Froholdt who found the practice squad last year and was activated for six games.
So Forbes is listed fourth. He is certainly not going to start for the Browns this year. Probably not ever. Catalogued now as purely a guard, how is he going to usurp Bitonio and Teller? Both are Pro Bowlers which are considered two of the best interior linemen in the entire league.
Dunn and Hance are listed as the backups. Oddly enough, both were signed as free agents. Forbes was not only drafted by the club, but he was highly-touted and the franchise spent a lot of time and effort on him before drafting him.
The Browns still like Forbes. It is certainly apparent that his opportunity to become a starter was missed with the opt-out decision. This allowed Teller to become a superstar.
And tackle is not an option since Cleveland has lots of options at that position already.
So Forbes best option is to attempt to become Bitonio’s backup. Lots of starters along the offensive line became injured last year. COVID restrictions remain in place. Perhaps if Forbes was to rebound and have a sensational training camp and look dominate in pre-season games, then he can pull a Tom Brady and go from fourth to third to the backup, and then with an injury, come in for the Pro Bowl starter and never look back.
Is the Drew Forbes query winding down? Is he still considered a solid starter, or camp fodder? His history indicates he can’t remain healthy. Plus, Dunn and Hance have proved they are capable backups.
This may be Forbes last hurrah with the Browns. And then again, it could become the most interesting storyline of this year’s training camp.