The offensive line is the backbone of the offense in the NFL. They are in charge of keeping the quarterback upright and making holes in the run game. If you look at the top offenses like the Philadelphia Eagles and Denver Broncos, the offensive line is a strength of the team. The Browns have two of the best linemen in the NFL in Joe Thomas and Alex Mack. These two lead the group by example through their stellar play and consistent playing time, but the team was not a complete unit because of several holes primarily on the right side of the line. The Browns addressed this issue with the drafting of Joel Bitonio and the signing of Paul McQuistan as these two look to improve the guard positions with more talent and depth.
Let’s dig in to the rest of the meat up front.
Projected OL Depth Chart
Notable Offensive Linemen Transactions
Additions 1. OL Joel Bitonio (Draft) 2. OL Paul McQuistan (Free Agency) 3. OL Randall Harris (Undrafted Free Agent) 3. OL Alex Parsons (Free Agent)
Subtractions 1. OL Shawn Lauvao (Free Agent; signed by WAS) 2. OL Oniel Cousins (Free Agent; signed by TB)
Joe Thomas has been a stalwart for the Browns at the left tackle position for the past seven seasons having not missed one snap through his entire professional career. The Wisconsin alum has been selected to the Pro Bowl every year in his career. He has also been named as a First Team All-Pro four times (2009, 2010, 2011, and 2013) and a Second Team All-Pro two times (2008 and 2012). Joe Thomas is considered one of the best offensive linemen in the NFL and maybe a future Hall of Famer.
Joe Thomas is an excellent all around left tackle with supreme athleticism for a player his size. The 6-foot-6-inch, 312-pound tackle has great feet to slide back and stay in front of the pass rusher. ProFootballFocus rated Thomas as the best pass blocking left tackle in the 2013 NFL season. Last season, Joe Thomas gave up only 4.5 sacks and was penalized for holding only three times according to STATS LLC. Thomas is very adept in staying in front of speed rushers because of his athleticism and technique. He rarely gets beat on the outside as he gets out of his stance very fast. He also is very strong and so the bull rushes do not faze him either. His pass blocking is the strongest part of his game and what makes him one of the best offensive linemen in the NFL.
Joe Thomas is not only a great pass blocker, but he is also a very good run blocker. He can force his defender to the direction he wants them to go and enable the runner to have a hole. He is really smart and so he knows what he must do to make a hole for the runner. Thomas is one of the best left tackles in the NFL because of his great pass blocking skills. He is the only constant the Browns have had over the past seven seasons. He is the leader of the offensive line.
Reid Fragel is a second year offensive tackle from Ohio State University. Fragel, 6-feet-8-inches and 308 pounds, is a former tight end in college who converted to tackle before his senior season. He is an athletic tackle who is a developmental player because of his lack of experience at the offensive tackle position. He has the talent to be an NFL caliber offensive tackle. He can learn from the best under Joe Thomas. Fragel will battle for the back up left tackle spot with Chris Faulk. He could be the developmental player the Browns keep either on the roster or the practice squad.
The Cleveland Browns signed Chris Faulk as an undrafted free agent in 2013. The 6-foot-6-inch, 317-pound offensive tackle played his college ball at LSU. He did not make any impact last year because of the knee injury that caused him to miss the entire 2013 season on the injured reserve. Faulk has not been able to play for two seasons in a row including his final season at LSU. Faulk has the athletic ability to stay in the NFL, but does not have great technique for an NFL caliber player. He will battle with Fragel for the backup left tackle spot and is probably a long shot at making the team.
Keavon Milton is an athletic tackle from Louisiana-Monroe. The 6-foot-4-inch, 293-pound offensive tackle was a tight end when he entered the league but was converted by the Browns to tackle last season. Milton is a project type player who will have a hard time making the team. He could possibly be placed on the practice squad if he shows promise during training camp.
John Greco is the returning starter at the left guard position. In the 2013 season, he played in 14 games and started in all of these games at left guard. He became the starting left guard during the 2012 season and performed very well during these ten games he started. In 2013, his play was not as strong as the previous one, but he still played pretty well.
Greco is considered a strong run blocker with average ability in pass blocking. ProFootballFocus says that Greco improved in the pass blocking last season, but his run blocking declined from the 2012 season. He is a strong player with very good ability to drive the defenders back in run blocking. The Toledo alum has very good balance and lower body strength, which helps him finish off blocks. He is a smart player who uses his knowledge to help get in the best position to make the block. Greco is not very adept in pass blocking because of his lack of athleticism and slow agility. He does not have great feet and so he can sometimes get beat by speed rushers.
John Greco is the favorite to regain the left guard spot for the Browns. He is a run-blocking mauler, who can also be an average pass blocker. Greco is best situated on the left side of the line because he can get help from Joe Thomas in pass blocking. Thomas is excellent at pass blocking, so he can help cover up the average skills of Greco. Greco in turn gives the Browns a strong side of the ball for running the ball. Greco could flip to the right side of the line if the Browns feel another player fits better on the left side.
Jason Pinkston has had an up-and-down career so far. Pinkston was a 2011 fifth-round draft pick by the Browns. He missed most of the past two seasons with injuries resulting in dressing for only 9 games combined. In his rookie season, he started all 16 games and performed very well for a rookie. His biggest question is his ability to stay healthy and be on the field.
Pinkston is a 6-foot-4-inch, 310-pound offensive guard who plays with very good leverage. He is a quality pass protector because of good athleticism and feet. He can stay in front of defenders because of these skills. He is very smart, which gives him the ability to be in the right place to make the block. He is an average run blocker because he is not very strong and not much of a mauler. Pinkston figures to be a fixture as a versatile guard who can play either side if needed. He could win the job if Greco or Bitonio underperform or get hurt.
Alex Mack has been at center for the Browns every game since the beginning of his career. Mack is one of the premier centers in the league and one of the most durable ones. He has earned two Pro Bowl trips (2010 and 2013). This past season, he was named a Second-Team All-Pro. He recently just signed a new five-year contract with the Browns this offseason.
Alex Mack is an all-around great center with the ability to pass and run block very well. According to ProFootballFocus, Mack has graded in the top ten every season of his career. His best skillset is his run blocking. He has very good athleticism at 6-feet-4-inches and 311-pounds. He is great at driving defenders back and getting to the next level to make a block down field. He is also very strong at pass blocking because of his ability to stay in front of the defender and keep him from getting to the quarterback. He is very good hiking the ball when the quarterback is under center and in shotgun. Mack is also very smart at getting his fellow offensive linemen in the right blocking scheme based on the defense’s formation.
Alex Mack has been a stalwart at center for the Browns for his five seasons. He is pegged to be at center for them for at least two more seasons before he has the option to void the rest of his deal. Mack is the brain of the line and so he is a huge cog of the offensive line.
The Browns signed 6-foot-4-inch, 301-pound Alex Parsons this week. He is a formerly of the Oakland Raiders where he started one game at center in two seasons with the team. He did not play in 2013 due to a season ending injury. He is versatile because of his ability play the center spot and both guard spots. He will be competing for the backup center position, but the team could just carry Mack and have other players as the emergency center.
The Browns selected Joel Bitonio from the University of Nevada in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft. The 6-foot-4-inch, 305-pound offensive lineman was a college offensive tackle for Nevada. He was very productive in college with 38 starts for the Wolfpack. Bitonio played very well against talented opponents like Anthony Barr.
Joel Bitonio can play any position on the line making him very versatile. He is a strong and tough player who has a nasty streak. He is very explosive off the ball, which enables him to get first contact with the defender before they can make a move. He was timed at 1.69 seconds for the 10-yard split and 2.80 seconds for the 20-yard split. These were the fastest times of any lineman at the NFL Combine and it shows his very good initial burst off the line. Bitonio is a player who can guard any type of rusher because of his combination of athleticism and strength.
Bitonio will start out his career at offensive guard for the Browns. He will be competing for a starting guard spot with the likes of Garrett Gilkey, Jason Pinkston, Paul McQuistan, and John Greco. He is projected to be competing specifically for the right guard. Bitonio is probably the leading candidate to earn the starting spot at right guard. Because of his versatility, he, later in his career, could develop into the eventual protégé for left tackle Joe Thomas. But, for right now he looks to play at the guard position.
The Cleveland Browns selected offensive lineman Garrett Gilkey from Chadron State in the seventh round of the 2013 NFL Draft. He missed ten games in rookie season last year. But throughout the season, he dressed six games and received one start versus Pittsburgh in the last game of the season. Gilkey showed a little bit of promise with his limited playing time.
Garrett Gilkey is a raw offensive lineman from a small college. He is 6-feet-6-inch and 315 pounds with very good athleticism and strength. He played his entire college career at left tackle. He is a strong and aggressive lineman who is very adept at run blocking. He has the strength to move defenders and create a hole for the runner. Gilkey still needs to improve his pass blocking in order to be a complete NFL offensive lineman. He figures to compete for a starting offensive guard spot, but most likely will be a back up for the Browns. He still needs some time to develop and become a better overall lineman.
Paul McQuistan was signed this offseason in free agency from the Seattle Seahawks. He is a versatile lineman who can play both tackle and both guard positions. He started 14 games last season for the Seahawks at either the left tackle or the left guard spot.
McQuistan is a 6-foot-6-inch, 315-pound offensive lineman who is very strong and good with his hands. He is very good at driving the defender back when he can get his hands on the defender. McQuistan is not a very athletic player and so he has a hard time staying in front of speed rushers. He is a valuable player because of his ability to play multiple positions on the offensive line. He will probably not battle for a starting spot on the team, but he will probably be the player the coaches look to when they need a spot start at a tackle or guard position.
Mitchell Schwartz is a third year player from the University of California, Berkeley. Schwartz has started every game of his career at right tackle for the Browns. He has had a bumpy career so far, with stints of good play and bad play. He is a 6-foot-5-inch, 320-pound offensive tackle with very good size and intelligence. He is a good pass blocker because of size and technique. He improved during the 2013 season after a rough start of the season.
Schwartz is an average run blocker because of his lack of athleticism to get to defenders on the move. He is also vulnerable to speed rushes on the outside because of his lack of foot speed and agility to keep in front of them. Schwartz has had a very inconsistent career so far. He will need to be more consistent in his play before the Browns can get completely comfortable with him at right tackle. He could improve solely because of the upgrade at guard and get some help from the player next to him. He is pegged in at the starting right tackle position for the Browns, but he must play better in order to keep the job.
Martin Wallace is a 2013 undrafted free agent from Temple University. He was signed by the Browns last offseason, but only dressed in one game last season. He is a 6-foot-6-inch, 305-pound offensive tackle with versatility to play either tackle position or possibly inside at the guard spots. He is a long shot at making the team, but could be a candidate for the practice squad.
Randall Harris was signed by the Browns as a 2014 undrafted free agent from Towson University. Harris is a 6-foot-3-inch, 296-pound versatile player who can play both guard and tackle. He blocked for the Browns’ Terrance West during his college career. He is not likely to make the squad unless he really impresses during training camp.
The Browns’ offensive line was ranked 12th this past season by ProFootballFocus. The team is anchored by left tackle Joe Thomas and Alex Mack. In terms of importance on the offensive line, the left tackle is the most important position because he is in charge of blocking the quarterback’s blindside. The next most important spot is the center because he is in charge of line calls and reading the defensive formation. So, the best part of the Browns’ offensive line is that it has the two most important spots filled with Pro Bowl caliber players. So the backbone of the line is very strong.
The biggest questions are the guard positions and right tackle. The right side of the line has been a problem for the team the past couple seasons. The Browns have had revolving doors at the guard positions in the last few seasons. But, the Browns seemed to have addressed the right side well with the addition of Joel Bitonio. Bitonio can come in immediately and win one of the starting guard jobs. This addition, along with Paul McQuistan’s addition, gives the team a lot more quality depth at the guard position. The tackle spot does not have much experienced depth. The Browns are relying on young guys like Reid Fragel and Chris Faulk to develop and be quality backup players.
If Joel Bitonio can play well and earn the right guard position (or left guard), then the offensive line could turn into a more complete unit. Greco would then most likely fill in the other guard spot and give the team a better pair of guards it had last season. Mitchell Schwartz is also a key on the line. If he can play like he did later in the 2013 season, then the right side will be much improved. Overall, the offensive line seems to be improved over last season and it could eventually be a huge strength on the team if the players develop well this coming season.
Joe has been writing for WFNY since April 2014. He is a diehard Cleveland sports fan, who is just looking for a winner in this town. He has been around sports his entire life by working with the basketball and football teams at St. Ignatius High School and also with the football team at Baldwin Wallace. Besides watching and writing about sports, Joe loves to spend time with his family and two dogs.