It has been said that the Browns have one of the three best offensive lines in the league.
Have - or had?
The center position is the rock of any offensive line. The signalcaller for this unit. Quarterback of the OL.
The problem with Cleveland is that their starting center, Nick Harris, blew out his knee Friday night against Jacksonville. On the second play of the game, Jaguars DT DaVon Hamilton bull-rushed Harris whose knee buckled and was ruled out for the remainder of the contest.
Then four days later, seventh round draft pick Dawson Deaton also suffered a knee injury. As the Browns had to trim their roster down to 85 players on Tuesday, both were placed on IR.
Losing Harris is a real blow. Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio stated:
“Anytime you lose a player at any point of the season, it’s tough. But (Harris) worked so hard this off-season and had an opportunity to be a starter in the NFL and you got out like that, second play of preseason Game 1 is not easy. But I know he’s going to bounce back, and that’s the character he has. He’s going to put his head down and work. He’s in pretty good spirits for...obviously he’s disappointed but ready to attack his next chapter.”
All during training camp, the center group has had four guys competing. The only athletes left are veteran Ethan Pocic and undrafted rookie Brock Hoffman.
So the questions that loom: go with Pocic, re-sign former Browns eight-year veteran J.C. Tretter, insert Hoffman, or bring in a new guy?
As a second round pick of the Seattle Seahawks in 2017, a lot was expected from Pocic (6’-6”, 309 pounds). Seattle had liked what they saw from him at the Senior Bowl who was ranked the second best center in the draft.
After drafting him they inked him to a four-year $4.4 million deal. In 2019 he suffered a back injury which landed him on IR twice. Last year he missed time in training camp with a hamstring injury and had a knee sprain in Week 1. That landed him on the IR list once again but was activated in mid-October.
He did start the Seahawks’ final 10 games and earned the highest run blocking grade of his career (76.0) from Pro Football Focus and had only one penalty all year. 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).
The allure to the coaching staff was that Tretter was going to be released to which the youngster Harris would in all likelihood become the new starter. The Browns wanted a veteran to come in and not only help Harris, but give this offensive line some seasoned veteran presence in case Harris failed or needed added tutelage other than from O-Line coach Bill Callahan. After all, Harris only has two NFL starts and neither was at center.
Pocic has 40 NFL starts under his belt plus one playoff game. In addition, he has played all across the line but none more than the center position.
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.
Pocic, age 26, realizes at this juncture the job is his now by default and said:
“The way I see it, man, this is the NFL. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know if they’re going to bring someone in or whatnot, but I can tell you I’m just going to prepare one day at a time. I’ve been in this league five years, so I know how things work. I know you’re always competing. So that’s my outlook, and I think competition makes you better. I really do. We’re always competing - whoever it is.”
There is another plus to having Pocic snap the ball: size. He stands 6-foot-6 and is a beefy 320 pounds compared to the 6-1, 293 pound frame of Harris. Remember, Tretter was 6’-4”. This means wider splits with both guards.
The need for quality backup on the offensive line is always a mission for the Browns. After going undrafted out of Virginia Tech, Hoffman (6’-3”, 310 pounds) wanted to come to a team in which he had a chance to make the roster. Now, he is one injury away from starting.
He has natural bend to sell the inside lanes. Hoffman has a 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.
The Browns coaching staff really likes his run blocking and why he was signed to compete.
If Pocic is not the answer, then who is?
Former starter J.C. Tretter was immediately mentioned as a replacement shortly after Harris was diagnosed with his knee injury. When Tretter was cut in March, it wasn’t for lack of production or because he is 31-years old. The Browns are an analytics team and Tretter was slated to make $8.2 million this year and analytics state pay the center position much less.
It is unclear if the team has reached out to him, or if he even wants to play any longer.
Tretter has not signed with another NFL team so far despite despite being the fourth-best center in run block win rate last year at 72%, per Next Gen Stats.
Five centers were cut from rosters on Tuesday: Cole Schneider (Green Bay ), Isaac Weaver (Los Angeles Chargers), Daniel Munyer (Tennessee), Chris Owens (Pittsburgh) and Ryan McCollum (Detroit).
McCollum was claimed by Pittsburgh. Munyer (6’-1”, 305 pounds) went undrafted in 2015 out of Colorado. He has played for four NFL clubs and saw the practice squad with three. Munyer saw action in 19 games with one start. During training camp this year he had been placed on IR and was released with an injury settlement.
Weaver (6’-6”, 310 pounds) played at Old Dominion where he was a four-year starter. He went undrafted this past NFL draft. Schneider (6’-4”, 315 pounds) started 47 of 49 games for Central Florida before going undrafted. He was named First Team All-AAC. Owens (6’-3”, 305 pounds) played for Alabama and was undrafted this year. He was a Hurricane Katrina evacuee whose family moved to Texas so that Owens could play football where he received his share of D-1 offers.
Other NFL free agent centers to consider that remain unsigned include Billy Price (age 26), Matt Pradis (32) and Trey Hopkins (30).
After Harris went down in the Jacksonville game, Pocic played the remainder of the first half. Hoffman came in the second half along with the remainder of the second team offense and finished the game.
The center position is vital to the Browns’ offense. If the coaching staff cannot solve this immediately, it isn’t going to matter what accolades the other linemen have garnered so far.
Is Pocic the answer? Head coach Kevin Stafanski thinks so:
“He is a good offensive lineman. He is going to do what he is told. When Bill [Callahan] tells him go in there, he will go in.”
It also isn’t going to matter at the amount of talent this offense has this year including four very good running backs.
Without a very good center to direct and make line calls, the offense will spit and sputter while this year’s team will become just sub-par.