Thursday, March 9, 2017

Browns finally upgrade offensive line

The wheels of progress churned furiously at Browns headquarters Thursday in Berea and at least one of their target areas in free agency was distinctly improved.

After shocking many in the world of pro football by trading for Houston quarterback Brock Osweiler, they worked on improving the offensive line on the first day of free agency.

The offensive line, the weakest area (not even arguably)on that side of the ball last season, was upgraded with the free-agent signings of center JC Tretter and guard Kevin Zeitler and the awarding of a five-year contract extension to incumbent left guard Joel Bitonio.

But the talent upgrade along the line comes with a red-flag warning. Tretter and Bitonio are injuries waiting to happen.

Bitonio has played in only 15 of the club’s 32 games the last two seasons due to injuries. Tretter, after three-injury filled seasons in Green Bay, finally nailed down a starting job last season only to suffer a season-ending knee injury in game seven. He has missed 33 games in four seasons.

While Bitonio and Tretter are highly regarded, they are clearly gambles in a sport that is considered more collision than contact. The Browns are gambling heavily those two will remain healthy for an entire season.

The Zeitler signing, which makes him the highest-paid guard in the National Football League, is a 10-strike, although the five-year, $60 million contract is somewhat steep for a player at his position. What makes him valuable is his ability to remain healthy. Outside of left tackle Joe Thomas, who has never missed a snap due to injury, the offensive line was extremely brittle last season.

In trading for Osweiler, a second-round pick in the 2018 college draft and a sixth-rounder this year for a fourth-rounder this year, the Browns have gone the analytic route. The chances of him ever donning the Seal Brown and Orange are slim.

The catch? Osweiler is scheduled to make $16 million this season and the Browns, who have about $100 million in salary cap space, can afford to absorb that obscene amount of money for someone who is clearly not worth it.

Osweiler nailed the big money when he signed a four-year, $72 million contract with the Texans after a strong showing while filling in for the injured Peyton Manning in Denver in 2015.

The question is how long will he be a part of the his new team. Rumors strongly suggest the Browns, who essentially bought a third second-pick in 2018 for $16 million, will use Osweiler as trade bait in order to get out from under his contract. Reportedly, they would be willing to eat half of the $16 million.

If no one steps up and is willing to dance with the Browns on Osweiler, they could cut him, which would amount to a salary dump, similar to what they do in the NBA when a team trades a high-salary player just to trim the payroll.

The Texans made the move to clear the monetary decks in an attempt to persuade quarterback Tony Romo, who was released by the Dallas Cowboys, to take over their offense. It is remotely possible the Browns decide to keep Osweiler for the 2017 season if they cut Robert Griffin III and the Jimmy Garoppolo deal – the oft-rumored deal that won’t die – never materializes.

Browns boss man Sashi Brown seemed more excited about obtaining the second pick than Osweiler. “We’re really excited,” he said in a news release. “Draft picks are extremely important to our approach of building a championship caliber football team.”

If that’s the case, then, why do rumors persist that Brown and his minions will make every effort to trade for Tom Brady’s backup in New England and surrender high draft picks in the process? Sounds like a contradiction.

At the risk of being repetitious, the untested Garoppolo is not worth anything more than a third-round pick. The Patriots no doubt will hold out for nothing less than at least one first-rounder, maybe more. The desperate Browns would be foolish to cave and meet whatever ridiculous demands the Patriots make.

It would appear Cleveland is far from through tapping into the free-agent market. As owner Jimmy Haslam III says, his team will be “appropriately aggressive” in an effort to make certain there will be no repeat of the 2016 season.

On deck, perhaps as early as Friday, the Browns are expected to sign veteran wide receiver Kenny Britt to a multi-year deal. The 6-3 wideout had a career season with the Los Angeles Rams last season, catching 68 passes for 1,002 yards and five touchdowns.

In his first seven seasons with Tennessee and the Rams, Britt never caught more than 48 passes and never recorded more than 775 yards in a season. He scored nine of his 30 career touchdowns in his second season.

Meanwhile, Terrelle Pryor is testing the free agent waters with several interested teams and most likely will not be back in Cleveland. He is seeking more money than the Browns apparently are willing to part with and someone out there probably will meet his demands.

If the big wide receiver becomes a former Cleveland Brown, that aspect of the offense will take a significant hit. Even though he played just one full season with Cleveland after switching to the position from quarterback, he is a more polished receiver than Britt.

Stay tuned. Based on Thursday’s action, we will see more moves as the Browns make a concerted effort to stockpile as many draft choices, an art at which they have become quite good, as they can.

Only one problem. The wisdom shown with the selections of those choices, at least based on how last season’s class panned out, seems to be missing. Of the 14 picks in last year’s lottery, only one, defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah, made significant contributions.

One in 14 does not bode well for the future of a team that has seven picks in the first four rounds of the next two drafts.

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