After the 2022 season, several media outlets ran their “best of” columns that closed out the year. In the offensive line category, the Cleveland Browns had been ranked Top-5. Pro Football Focus (PFF) listed this group as Number 2 behind the Philadelphia Eagles.
Here was their assessment:
“This line simply needs to stay healthy. Last season, tackles Jedrick Wills Jr. and Jack Conklin played only 763 and 361 snaps, respectively. Cleveland’s line underperformed last season, but the pieces are there for this to be as good as any unit in the game. The Browns remain the best offensive line in the game on paper. Center Ethan Pocic had a career year in the middle for the Browns in 2022, and Joel Bitonio finished the season named as a PFF All-Pro at left guard.”
FTN Fantasy placed the Browns’ offensive line as Number 4. The Score slotted the Browns at Number 4 in their “elite” category.
The site 33rd Team ranked this group #3 and stated this:
“The Browns offensive line is one of the best groups in the NFL with strong play across the OL and premier talent at the OT positions. They all have the ability to be effective in pass protection and the run game. Likewise, they have a strong mix of young talent and veteran leadership.”
After last season, it was a unanimous feeling that there were no true weak points across Cleveland’s starting five.
The undisputed leader of this group is longtime coach Bill Callahan, a former NFL head coach and well-known for being the best offensive line tutor in the league.
LG Joel Bitonio had been named to his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl and named First Team All-Pro twice and Second Team All-Pro three times. RT Jack Conklin had been selected First Team All-Pro twice himself. RG Wyatt Teller was finally getting the recognition he deserved and got his second piece of Pro Bowl hardware and was named Second Team All-Pro twice.
LT Jedrick Wills was a former first-round draft pick in 2020 when the Browns had their pick of offensive tackles. Free agent signee Ethan Pocic had elevated himself way beyond his one-year deal and after a steady 2022 campaign was assumed due to a very good multi-year contract.
And life was good in the trenches for this Cleveland franchise. What could go wrong?
Fast forward to Week 15 of the 2023 season in the home game against the Chicago Bears.
The Browns had progressed to owning the fifth seed holding an 8-5-0 record with four games remaining in the regular season. A lot was on the line, and any unexpected loss late in the season to an inferior team such as the Bears could be the difference between playing playoff games and watching playoff games. After all, the Pittsburgh Steelers were slotted with the sixth seed and after several defeats have now landed in the 10th position, three spots out of playoff contention. So, it does happen even with clubs who have positive win-loss records.
The 2023 season appeared very promising. QB Deshaun Watson had a full training camp and the offense was now blessed with speedy receiver talent with the signing of Marquise Goodwin, the trade for Elijah Moore, and newly-drafted Cedric Tillman. TE Jordan Akins was brought in as a former Houston Texans teammate of Watson’s so familiarity was suggested as key. RB Nick Chubb was poised to become the league’s rushing leader.
And the greatest prize for the Browns? They possessed one of the league’s best offensive lines.
The need for a lug wrench
Yep, the wheels came off very quickly this season.
Before the season officially began, OG Drew Forbes, who missed all of the 2022 campaign due to a knee injury, was carted off the practice field due to a back injury during training camp. Backup center Dawson Deaton was another player who had missed the entire 2022 season with a torn ACL which did not completely heal in time for this year. Both players were then placed on season-ending IR.
Conklin offered stability and a world of experience at right tackle. He had been a prized free agent signing way back in 2020 from the Tennessee Titans and was a seasoned anchor along the line. He signed a huge four-year, $60 million extension with Cleveland in late December last year.
In Week 1 against the Cincinnati Bengals, he became hurt. Again. This time it was a torn ACL and MCL just 22 plays into the year and placed on season-ending IR. As good as Conklin is, what Cleveland has seen from him mostly is him being placed on the IR list at some point. He just can’t stay on the field with not only a multitude of injuries but a variety of pain and suffering.
In his place, Coach Callahan did not insert the veteran James Hudson, but rookie Dawand Jones. Over time and games, Jones proved he could play big-boy football and was in the conversation of being placed on the NFL All-Rookie Team this year. Jones was seen as miraculous that a big man could move that well. Part of the solution was Coach Callahan had him shave his weight down from the 375 he showed up in training camp. The loss of the added weight improved Jones’ feet which enabled him to not get beat off a quick first step.
Bitonio missed the Week 6 win over the San Francisco 49ers with a knee issue to which backup guard Michael Dunn went down with a calf injury and would not come out of the game. The next day, he landed on IR.
Practice squad backup OT Ty Nsekhe was pulled up for the Week 8 Seattle Seahawks game but left because of a bicep injury. He then was put on the practice squad IR list.
Then LT Jed Wills went down with an MCL injury of his own in Week 9 against the Arizona Cardinals. After his time on IR came due for him to begin practicing, he opted for surgery which ended his season as well. Jones was then switched from RT to LT with Hudson now the recipient at RT.
The center, Pocic, got a new contract as well before this year signing a three-year $18 million extension in March. He had a chest and right knee injury earlier in the season and then was injured with a stinger in the first quarter of the Week 9 matchup against the Jacksonville Jaguars. He did not play against the Bears and his return to practice is unknown much less ready to suit up.
Jones sustained a knee injury during practice just after the Jacksonville game. Shortly, the team announced that he would have season-ending knee surgery. This thrust backup Geron Christian into the starting lineup.
In Pocic’s stead was backup center Nick Harris. He has been criticized in the past for not having a large frame and the needed girth to regularly go up against 325-pound defensive tackles. But in the past two games he has had success and can make accurate pre-snap line calls.
Prior to the Week 11 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, a 13-10 Browns win, Dunn was activated from IR.
Next up, Bitonio suffered a back injury against the Bears with 6:08 remaining in the first quarter and did not return. It was reported that Bitonio’s back had locked up during pregame warmups but he still started. After the game, his back tightened.
As Bitonio’s backup, Dunn replaced him against Chicago as he had done earlier in the year versus the 49ers. Bitonio’s prognosis is considered day-to-day.
In the same game, Harris limped off the field with trainers early in the fourth quarter and was subbed by rookie Luke Wypler who played just four snaps. Harris later returned to the game.
If you are scoring at home, that is 10 offensive linemen who have had to miss portions or full games due to injury. Of this number, six are gone for the year including any potential playoff games.
Bitonio’s injury meant that Teller was the Browns’ last remaining survivor along the original starting O-line. Click the link above to view what Cleveland began with in Week 1 with this group.
Professional grade - the 2023 model
PFF is the standard for grading every NFL player. And they have the bodies and mathematicians to pull it off. Everybody around the league respects PFF for their fairness, professionalism, consistency, and reliable information.
Just like Carfax is a paid automotive service that keeps up with accidents, service records, salvage titles, number of owners plus loads of other pertinent information regarding vehicles, PFF makes their income off of subscriptions of their privileged information.
So far this season, here are the overall PFF grades for each Browns offensive lineman:
- Jack Conklin: 74.5
- Ethan Pocic: 72.8
- Wyatt Teller: 72.7
- Joel Bitonio: 68.7
- Dawand Jones: 64.7
- Luke Wypler: 59.2
- Nick Harris: 56.1
- Jedrick Wills: 54.0
- Michael Dunn: 51.3
- Geron Christian: 47.9
- James Hudson: 41.2
As you can see, Teller and Pocic are the only players left who have been consistent in their productivity this season. This may explain why the Browns have struggled so drastically on the offensive side of the ball for most of the schedule.
None of the Browns’ offensive linemen are currently listed in the top 10 at each position.
This group as a whole has fallen off quite a bit, especially since the original five have been in flux in the lineup. Once regarded as an elite group, FTN Fantasy now has a #14 grade on the Browns O-Line.
Cleveland has allowed the seventh-highest pressure ratio in the league at an astounding 31.9% of passing downs. The franchise has brought in veteran Joe Flacco to play quarterback for the remainder of the season, but with numbers like this, he has been harassed and flushed out of the pocket repeatedly. This alone has forced Flacco to throw before he is certain of this target’s trajectory as many a ball has sailed long. Plus, interceptions have happened with hurried pass attempts.
The (ugh!) tackle position and backups needed
Few things are more important to a team’s success than the quality of its offensive line.
On the final offensive series for the Browns against Chicago, here was the offensive line:
- RT James Hudson
- RG Wyatt Teller
- C Nick Harris
- LG Michael Dunn
- LT Geron Christian
This equates to one starter and four backups. And when Wypler came in, it was one starter, three backups, and a third-string rookie.
Harris began at center and was performing well but got hurt himself. Wypler is a natural center but saw his last duties at this position back in training camp in preseason games. For him to be inserted in Week 14 as the franchise is driving for a post-season bid is a tall order. In Week 1, he was listed as third string and retained that status all season.
As of last Friday, Pocic was still not practicing. Bitonio’s status is also unknown.
During the past few games, both tackles have had their issues. Hudson has garnered quite a bit of scrutiny and had a very difficult assignment against the Bears with their premier EDGE rusher Montez Sweat. He is actually leading two NFL clubs in sacks as he was a former member of the Washington Commanders before he was shipped off at the trade deadline.
Chicago has described Sweat as a force multiplier since his arrival. Against Cleveland, and more specifically Hudson, the talented defensive end had 2.5 sacks, three QB hits, one tackle for loss, plus he helped others get free to cause havoc in the backfield.
The tackle position for the Browns is a problem. Can this be admitted?
The only other tackle on the active roster is backup Leroy Watson (6’-5”, 311 pounds). The 25-year-old went undrafted in 2022 and was signed off the 49ers practice squad on November 2.
On the Browns practice squad is former first-round draft pick Alex Leatherwood (6’-5”, 312 pounds), a natural right tackle who spent his last three seasons at the University of Alabama in that position winning two National Championships. He is just 24 years old. Another tackle on this unit is 30-year-old Justin Murray (6’-5”, 315 pounds) who is with his ninth NFL club.
Applications for offensive line accepted on Tuesdays
Right now, the Browns are in a great position to make the playoffs. However, there is a catch: they have three offensive tackles on the roster, with Pocic out - two centers, and if Bitonio cannot play, just two guards. Wypler would go into the Texans game as the only backup center and the lone backup guard.
No, these numbers are not a misprint.
Let this information marinate for a second. Against Chicago, both Harris and Bitonio left the game at different intervals. What happens if this same scenario occurs against Houston? Cleveland only has seven healthy offensive linemen if Bits and Pocic can’t play and then two more become injured against the Texans. The coaching staff will play five guys which is all that is left.
Are you serious?
That is like taking five basketball players to a game and hoping nobody gets hurt - or tired. Is the Browns coaching staff formulating a list of which defensive players can play center, guard, or tackle?
Cleveland needs to add at least two offensive tackles and two guards. Minimum.
And if the Browns are in trouble because of attrition, then other clubs are too - or will be. Now is the time to sign players before the pickings get raided of what’s left out there.
OT La’el Collins (6’-4”, 315 pounds)
Collins began with the Cincinnati Bengals this year but was released on September 12 after beginning the season on the PUP list. With both Wills and Jones out, he has the experience needed with 89 games (86 starts) throughout a career split between the Dallas Cowboys and Cincy.
He was injured in December of the 2022 campaign as he tore three ligaments in his left knee: the ACL, MCL, and PCL. He had surgery in January.
Former Bengals’ OT La’el Collins, who missed training camp on the active/PUP list while rehabbing from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament, passed his physical today with Dr. Neal ElAttrache. Collins expected to soon find work.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) September 25, 2023
On September 25, he passed a physical. He worked out for the New York Football Giants and New York Jets in October.
Collins is a solid contributor highlighted by his averaging a 79.5 overall PFF grade in his last three seasons with the Cowboys. His 73.5 run block grade shows that he’s a perfect fit to help the run game and would be a solid body to help Cleveland going forward.
OG A.J. Cann (6’-3”, 320 pounds)
The former third-round pick of the Jaguars has plenty of experience with 110 NFL starts after being a four-year starter in college. He started every game for the Texans last year. He did play center in high school so the versatility is there.
Cann moves well on outside runs and is a good pulling guard. He has shown he can get out in space and move to the next level as needed. His hand placement to drive block defenders out of the play is a huge plus and he can win with leverage. The knocks on him are his short arms and may not be agile enough laterally to succeed in a zone-blocking scheme which limits his power.
OT Taylor Lewan (6’-7”, 309 pounds)
The top free-agent offensive tackle prospect available is Lewan. He is the former Tennessee Titans teammate of injured Browns RT Jack Conklin. He was taken by the Titans with the 11th pick in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft. He has since been selected to play in three Pro Bowls after being named Two Time All-American in college.
Except for a concussion in 2018, he was very durable. Then in 2020, Lewan tore his ACL and was placed on injured reserve. Last year, Lewan suffered a knee injury in Week 2 where he landed on IR for the balance of the year. Lewan announced that he would be considering retirement from playing but has not at this point. Like Joe Flacco, he just may want one last shot at playing with a playoff-caliber team like the Browns.
The only thing Lewan seems to be doing currently is he and former teammate Will Compton began a podcast in the summer of 2019 called “Bussin with the Boys” on the Barstool Sports network.
OG/C James Ferentz (6’-2”, 290 pounds)
Team: New England Patriots practice squad
Ferentz would give the Browns both a guard and a center. He has played in 39 NFL games and has extensive playoff experience including winning two Super Bowls while with the Patriots. His father is Iowa Hawkeyes head coach Kirk Ferentz. In college, he was known as one of the best centers.
He is a tough guy, though, and can play three positions. Ferentz is gritty and gets intelligence and intensity from being a coach’s kid. He does not have great quickness or strength.
Other notables to consider: OT Jason Peters (age 40), OG Wes Martin (27 – Browns training camp 2023), OT Josh Wells (32 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers practice squad), Michael Schofield (33 – Detroit Lions practice squad), OT Marcus Cannon (35), OG/OT Tom Compton (34), OT Joe Haeg (30 - Browns roster 2022), OG/OT Jaryd Jones-Smith (28 - Washington Commanders practice squad - 2023 XFL All-Star Team), OT Jarron Jones (29 - Two Time USFL All-Star Team)
So far this season, the offensive line, secondary, and defensive line have been the position groups most affected by injuries. Cleveland will need to find support along the offensive line in order to establish a viable depth chart and/or some starting bodies if they want to go deep into the playoffs.
It may even become a reality this year that the Browns may be shut out without a player from the offensive line to make the Pro Bowl. Currently, DE Myles Garrett and K Dustin Hopkins are the only Cleveland players who are the top vote-getters at their respective positions in the AFC. Former Browns guard Kevin Zeitler is the top vote-getter for AFC offensive guard. Fans can vote online after they sign in.
Fan voting results are only one-third of the selection process. Player selections are determined by the consensus votes of fans, players, and coaches. Following the end of the fan vote, NFL players and coaches will cast their votes on December 29. The Pro Bowl rosters will contain 44 players per conference, with 88 total.
Bitonio may have his consecutive Pro Bowl nod streak broken as he is currently listed fifth in voting with Zeitler and Joe Thuney of the Kansas City Chiefs leading the AFC voting for guards. Teller is not listed in the Top-10. Pocic is also not listed in the Top-10 for centers and no Browns are listed under the tackle spot.
Understand this: The Browns are a playoff contender this year. Without a good offensive line, they will exit a playoff pretender.
As the weekly 1970s NFL highlight show “This Week in Pro Football” wrapped up each show with, Dawgs By Nature will offer, “At any rate, we’ll be back next week to show you what happened.”