The Cleveland Browns just may be a playoff team this year. They have the markings of perhaps taking their first-ever AFC North Division title.
That is if the offense shows up to play.
This group is a Jekyll and Hyde so far this season. They dominated the Cincinnati Bengals and Tennessee Titans and then gave away the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers with every conceivable mistake. The Bengals are regarded as one of the league’s elite clubs while the Titans began last year 7-3-0 before losing their final seven games.
During the off-season, the Browns’ offensive line was selected as one of the Top-3 groups in the league. Now that the year is rolling along, does this still ring true?
QB Deshaun Watson is the fourth most sacked (12) signalcallers this season. He has had eight hurries and nine knockdowns. He has an average of 2.6 seconds in which to throw the ball. Against the Steelers, he was harassed or chased out of the pocket consistently.
So far this year, nobody is using “elite” and “Browns offensive line” in the same sentence. Is part of their issues both tackle positions?
Two-time All-Pro RT Jack Conklin went down in Week 1 with a torn ACL and MCL and is out for the year. In all likelihood, he has played his last down with Cleveland because he just can’t stay on the field. When he plays, he is spectacular. But his injury list is becoming a novel. 2017: ACL tear (IR); 2018: concussion, knee injury (IR); 2019: shoulder; 2020: hamstring, elbow injury (IR), torn Patellar tendon (IR); 2022: ankle; 2023: torn ACL and MCL (IR).
For the past two seasons when Conklin would go down with yet another injury, his replacement was James Hudson (6’-5”, 313 pounds), a fourth-round pick of the Browns in 2021. But when Conklin had his recent knee injury, it was the rookie Dawand Jones, another fourth-rounder, who has stepped in.
In the first three games, two as the starting RT, Jones’ reviews have been very positive and he appears to be an early-season triumph. The knock on him so far is his run-blocking. At times, he looks lost as if he is uncertain of his assignment. But his pass-blocking grades are exceptional. He has very long arms which are difficult to avoid which diminishes a defender’s pass-rushing options.
While at Ohio State, Jones (6’-8”, 375 pounds) played in 40 games with 26 starts at right tackle. His size is perfect for the professional game because he is so freaking big. It appears that going forward, there is no reason to remove Jones from the right tackle position as long as O-Line Coach Bill Callahan sees that he is the best fit.
Dawand Jones vs the Titans— PFF CLE Browns (@PFF_Browns) September 26, 2023
37 pass blocking snaps
0 pressures allowed pic.twitter.com/VsmYRYmVgS
To the other side
Now, the left tackle is another animal.
There is growing sentiment that LT Jedrick Wills is not the answer. The opinion is that he is not a consistent run blocker and once he disengages from this defender, he suddenly becomes a spectator.
In the first three games, he has allowed three sacks including the blindside hit from Steelers linebacker Alex Highsmith which resulted in not only a sack but a fumble that found the waiting arms of DE T.J. Watt for six points, which was the difference in the final score.
Wills (6’-4”, 307 pounds) has played every snap so far this year. His Pro Football Focus (PFF) grade is a paltry 47.3. Watson has been under constant pressure with a majority of that coming from Wills’ direction.
To put it mildly, Wills has struggled his second year in a row.
Against the Titans, DE Arden Key had his way with Wills. In the Steelers game, Wills was simply horrible. In Week 1, it was DE Trey Hendrickson who tormented him all game. He has a habit of oversetting and has issues with defenders who have a great first step and then lean out of the block.
Having a left tackle who allows his defender to get pressure on the quarterback only makes Watson have to throw the ball sooner than preferred. And while other members of the offensive line have been inconsistent particularly this year, it is Wills who is struggling the most.
One might say that Wills just needs time to figure out his process. But he is in his fourth year. He has never sniffed a Pro Bowl and appears to diminish each season.
The Browns did secure his fifth-year option which puts him under contract through 2024. His salary this year is a cap hit of $6.269 million. But next season he is set to have a cap hit of $14.6 million.
However, given the mediocre status of Wills’ performance, when asked, GM Andrew Berry was silent on their decision to exercise their option in his fifth year. That quiet reaction changed at the NFL owner’s meeting in late March when Berry stated:
“Pleased with Jed’s progress. Thought he had his best year this past year. I think, as you guys know is my custom, I don’t really talk about those things in this setting, but we are happy with Jed.”
Last year Wills dealt with an ankle injury in Week 3 against Pittsburgh and then a back issue flared up in the Week 16 loss to the New Orleans Saints. His PFF grade in 2022 was 62.9 which included 69.6 in pass blocking with 55.3 in run blocking. Wills’ grade the year before was 66.1.
Head coach Kevin Stefanski explained this past off-season:
“I think in the moment, in the season, you felt it because he was healthy and was playing well. But as you go back and watch a lot of the tape over and over, he’s doing a nice job in the run game and the passing game. He’s winning his one-on-one matchups. Never perfect because it’s hard to be perfect as a left tackle in this game, but he played well. I really think, if he stays healthy, the trajectory continues to ascend.”
Continues to ascend? Wills is in his fourth season. Last year, he was the most criticized offensive lineman down the stretch. To date, he has not improved since last season. The development stage is over and it is time for him to become the value Cleveland spent on him with the 10th overall pick.
What do the Browns do about Wills?
Anytime a team can keep a group together like the offensive line for a number of years, then remain in the same system and just keep learning, it plays a huge role in more cohesion as a unit.
That is the most important thing for the offensive line: cohesion. But when one player is not playing up to the standards as the rest of the line, something must be done.
For his career, Wills has committed 24 penalties for 169 yards and allowed 18 sacks with yardage lost at 96.5. He is known for quitting on plays.
Comments on Twitter regarding Wills are as follows:
“You can’t get much worse.” He’s so bad.” “71 is not outstanding.” “Wills is going to get Deshaun Watson injured!” ”Worst left tackle in the game!” “71 zero emotion after the cheap shot.” “Wills stinks as a LT” “He should be Ubering home” “JW is the weakest of links” “Please release 71!” “71 got to goooo” “OL seems to be struggling at times.....LT is a concern....” “Lazy, the play is over for him after the first few seconds.” “Total disgrace.”
He hasn't developed like we would have wished it's hard to come in behind a Joe Thomas and replace him ....but Jed's always graded out as below average to average in his career ...You don't see much growth and you see alot of laziness and giving up— TheNat1Noob (@TheHuddleIsReal) January 2, 2023
In the first three games of this season, Wills has graded out at 44.3, 50.7, and 47.3 respectively. He clearly has the talent but has earned consistently below-average PFF grades. However, for the first two weeks, Wills graded out at 90.5 in pass blocking.
What are Cleveland’s options?
Ty Nsekhe (6’-8”, 325 pounds)
College: Texas State
Draft: 2009 undrafted
NFL games/starts: 103/25
Nsekhe is currently on the Browns practice squad. He was elevated to the main roster for the Titans game but did not register any snaps. Last season with the Los Angeles Rams he had eight starts at left tackle.
He is also versatile in that he can play both guard and tackle positions. With the Rams, Nsekhe played 421 snaps. His PFF overall grade was 70.6 with an impressive pass-blocking grade of 80.7. Each season that he had significant snaps, he has graded out well.
Garett Bolles (6’-5”, 300 pounds)
Draft: 2017 first round pick #20 (Broncos)
NFL games/starts: 82/82
Bolles is currently employed with the Denver Broncos who drafted him in the first round. He was named to the PFWA NFL All-Rookie Team and selected Second Team All-Pro in 2020.
Since Berry is always looking to obtain talent, plus the fact that the Broncos are blowing up so early in the season, it just could be a possibility that Denver would be interested in trading Bolles. The fact that Bolles is 31 may be a factor. In addition, Broncos head coach Sean Payton has already stated that he wants his own guys on the roster and realizes it may take a few seasons to obtain this idea. So, Bolles just may be available.
Without any first-round picks available, Cleveland will have to be creative in adding Bolles. Berry has already performed grand larceny with the acquisitions of Za’Darius Smith, Amari Cooper, and Elijah Moore.
Bolles has a mean streak and has played well in Denver. He is very durable having started every game since he was drafted in 2017. Like Wills, Bolles has one more year remaining on his contract. His base salary is $13.75 million this year which jumps to $16 million in 2024.
So far in 2023, Bolles has had zero penalties and allowed 1.5 sacks. He allowed 8.5 in his rookie campaign, but every season since the highest number has been 3.5 sacks. In the past three seasons, he has committed just five, six, and four penalties, respectively.
Bolles has already stated his displeasure with being stuck in Denver and has voiced interest in having a clean slate somewhere else.
More iconic KO, Ali or Wills? pic.twitter.com/ebHiFuHDPD— Roberto Shenanigans (@Rob_Shenanigans) September 25, 2023
The Browns are looking like post-season contenders. It would be a shame to have this year derailed by poor left tackle play.