If the Browns are to turn things around next season- and that’s a big if- a number of improvements have to be made on the offensive side of the ball and it starts on the line.
The good news, if you are a Browns fan, is that there appears to be reason for optimism.
We have a few known variables- such as Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas. Even if you don’t think Thomas played at a Pro Bowl level last year, he is still in the top five in the league. He has been very durable throughout his career, starting and finishing all 80 games the Browns have played since drafting him. There may even be reason to believe the Browns have some depth in case the unthinkable happens and Thomas goes down.
The Browns decided to cut Eric Steinbach in what really amounted to a cost-efficiency move. They feel Jason Pinkston can do the job there for a lot less money. There was talk that the Browns may decide to bring Steinbach back at a reduced salary. As of now, Steinbach has not signed with any other team. Given what the Browns did in the draft to improve the line, and the improvement they are expecting from Jason Pinkston, I’m fairly certain Steinbach won’t be returning.
The center position will again be manned by Alex Mack, who is an above average center. Yes, he had a Pro Bowl appearance as an injury replacement. The AFC North has a few excellent centers. Mack might not be the best center in our own division, but what difference does that make anyway. He is a plug ‘em in and forget ‘em type of player.
Now we move to the right side of the line.
Before the draft, the Browns resigned Oniel Cousins and John Greco. This move made me nervous that the Browns may not address the offensive line until late in the draft, and that we would be stuck again with a black hole on the right side. Fortunately I was wrong. The Browns added Mitchell Schwartz in the second round and Ryan Miller in the fifth.
Schwartz will be expected to win the right tackle spot. Early second round picks should be good enough to step in and start right away on the offensive line. Take a look at his bio from Cal-
“Started all 51 games possible during his Cal career from 2008-11 to fall one start short of Syd’Quan Thompson’s school record of 52, making the starts at either left tackle (35) or right tackle (16) … earned first-team All-Pac-12 and Pac-12 All-Academic in his senior season … also named second-team All-Pac-10 as a junior and was an honorable mention choice in his sophomore campaign … named honorable mention Pac-10 All-Academic (2008-10) and earned the Brick Muller Award as Cal’s Most Valuable Offensive Lineman (2009-11) for three seasons each.
2011: Earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors after starting all 13 games at left tackle, marking the fourth consecutive season of starting every one of the team’s contests … anchored an offensive line that blocked for first-year starting tailback Isi Sofele, who posted the sixth-highest rushing total in school history with 1,322 yards … added first-team All-Pac-12 selections from the ESPN Pac-12 Blog and Phil Steele, and was a second-team pick of College Sports Madness and Yahoo! Sports … picked up the team’s Brick Muller Award as Cal’s Most Valuable Offensive Lineman for the third straight campaign … also won a Cort Majors Captains Award on offense … a second-team midseason All-Pac-12 selection of Phil Steele … a third-team preseason All-American by GoDaddy.com and Sporting News … a candidate for national honors who was on watch lists for the Outland Trophy and Rotary Lombardi Award … named by Phil Steele as the nation’s No. 24 draft-eligible tackle prior to the campaign … a first-team All-Pac-10 preseason choice of Athlon, Steele and Sporting News, while Lindy’s had him as one of Cal’s “Players to Watch” and a second-team preseason All-Pac-10 pick.”
Durability, and some experience playing the right side. There are some great videos of Schwartz on Youtube, take a look at this one from Cal’s game against Stanford if you have some time. Particularly at the 3:15 mark. (He is #72, playing left tackle.) The Browns loved him, and there is nothing I see or read that tells me he won’t be the answer at right tackle.
Shawn Lauvao started at the right guard spot last season. After a rough beginning of the season, he showed definite improvement by the end of the year, especially in run blocking. But the Browns will have options at that spot. Ryan Miller has the physical make-up of a tackle, yet played guard in college. I’d be very surprised if the fifth rounder was ready at the start of the season and won the job. Most linemen taken that late are projects, but many do eventually contribute. I would also have a hard time imagining the Browns starting two rookies on the right side in week one.
So, if the starting unit is Thomas, Pinkston, Mack, Lauvao, and Schwartz from left to right I think that has the potential to be a very good unit. Greco or Cousins could potentially steal the job at right guard. Then again either could also be cut (Cousins imo). One or both would give the Browns some experience on the second unit.
The Browns also added a few undrafted players this weekend that have a legitimate shot of making the team. Not only does he have the name that all Browns fans can appreciate, but Matt Cleveland was a 3 year starter at left tackle for Idaho. Akron natives can root for Jake Anderson, a 6’6″ guard from the Zips with impressive strength. Center Garth Gerhart from Arizona State will try to make the team as a back-up to Alex Mack. And of course there is J.B. Shugarts.
This line is a big improvement on paper from last year’s version. Let’s hope it transitions to real life.