Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Browns’ offensive line second-best?

Pro Football Focus, an Internet statistical bible to many followers of the National Football League, recently paid the Browns’ new and improved offensive line a huge compliment, ranking it the second-best unit in the league.

With a caveat.

The headline read, ”Ranking all 32 offensive units heading into the 2017 season.” PFF’s Mike Renner broke down all 32 units before a snap has been made with money on the line.

And therein lies the delicate little tease that gets the attention of Browns fans, many of whom glom on to anything positive as if it were gospel. After 18 seasons of futility, who can blame them?

This was Renner’s surprising assessment of the Browns’ offensive line, now the league’s highest paid unit, for the upcoming campaign:

“The offseason free-agent spending spree could pay huge dividends in Cleveland. JC Tretter and Kevin Zeitler bring well-above-average grades from a season ago at center and guard, respectively. The only question mark comes at right tackle, where Shon Coleman looked at least competent in his 62 snaps as a rookie.”

Renner had the Browns sandwiched between the top-ranked Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers. He stated his conclusions were arrived at on “a multi-year grade based off snap counts and performance.”

There is no question Cleveland’s offensive line is improved over last season, when that unit surrendered a club record 66 sacks. It would have been worse if not for perennial All-Pro Joe Thomas at left tackle. Anything would be an improvement over that unit.

The addition of Zeitler and Tretter is, indeed, an improvement, as is the return from injury of left guard Joel Bitonio. But it’s also time to be realistic.

Tretter and Bitonio are quality linemen. When healthy. Their apparent fragility cannot be discounted. The question is whether they can book a 16-game season.

Based on their histories, they are injuries waiting to happen. Tretter has never played a full NFL season. And Bitonio, since playing all 16 games as a rookie in 2014, has missed more games due to injury than he has played healthy in the last two seasons.

Speaking of 2014, that was when the Browns actually had a quality offensive line with center Alex Mack anchoring Thomas and Mitchell Schwartz at the tackles and Bitonio and John Greco at the guards.

Browns fans surely recall that season when the Browns got off to a 6-3 start in Mike Pettine’s first season as head coach – enjoying the rarefied air of first place in the AFC North for a fleeting moment – before losing six of the last seven games to finish 7-9. The collapse began shortly after Mack broke a leg in game five.

The weakness on the current offensive line clearly resides at right tackle, where Coleman and Cameron Erving will battle this summer to replace the departed Austin Pasztor, who was a turnstile in pass protection last season.

As Renner noted, Coleman was competent last season in limited snaps (62). If he beats out Erving – and he should – he might see that many snaps in the season-opening game against Pittsburgh.

Tretter and Zeitler, who has avoided injury problems in the NFL, will have to make the biggest adjustments, coming over from teams that boast good offensive lines and know how to win.

Summing up . . . Thomas, the mainstay on the offensive line ever since his arrival in 2007, is not getting any younger. Bitonio and Tretter are injury risks. Zeitler, now the league’s highest-paid guard after agreeing to a five-year, $60 million contract, is solid despite never having been named to the Pro Bowl. And whoever wins at right tackle mans the weak spot on the line.

It’s nice to boast of having the NFL’s second-best offensive line, according to one reputable Internet site. With an offense that is at best suspect with regard to skill players, it will be interesting to see how much clout the revamped offensive line can deliver.

Coach Hue Jackson has indicated his offense will be much more balanced this season, which means the line, at least theoretically, will not be called upon to pass protect nearly as often as last season. That right there is a step in the right direction.

The two main areas of concern following the 2016 season -- and addressed by the front office -- were the offensive and defensive lines, an acknowledgment to the long-held notion that games are won and lost in the trenches.

Win the battles there and your chances of winning games improve exponentially. Based strictly on health – and that path is fraught with danger in a 16-game season – the Browns’ offensive line deserves the accolades awarded by PFF.

It should be interesting to see how much, if at all, realism and 16 football games during the regular season tinker with the pre-season optimism.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Browns need to be embarrassingly bad again

Let us be perfectly honest here about the 2017 Cleveland Browns.

The National Football League has become a quarterbacks league. If you have a quarterback who ranks anywhere from very good to exceptional, you have a great shot at not only making the playoffs, but advancing into February.

Teams that do not have a quarterback who fits that description, there will be no postseason. Only hope, in most cases, for the future. Color the Browns one of those teams.

That is why they must come close to replicating their disastrous 2016 season. It is their only chance to draft a quarterback whose collegiate credentials give them a chance to finally land their elusive franchise quarterback.

Brock Osweiler, Cody Kessler and DeShone Kizer are merely warming the job until that quarterback is ready to step onto the professional football stage. They are not the future of this team.

All three will play this season. The nature of the position, especially with this team, strongly suggests that is inevitable. A combination of injuries and poor play virtually guarantees it.

In order to be in position to draft their quarterback of the future, the Browns absolutely must lose as many games as possible in the upcoming season to insure qualifying for the top pick once again.

There are three quarterbacks in the next college draft who will sport far better credentials and talent than the top three in the most recent draft. And yes, that includes Kizer, who isn’t nearly ready to step in and be a pro and whose selection this year will be considered a mistake in the future.

Of those three college quarterbacks, only one stands out. His name is Sam Darnold from USC. And while UCLA’s Josh Rosen and Josh Allen of Wyoming present strong credentials, Darnold is clearly the top dog in this class.

All you have to do is look at what he did to Penn State in the last Rose Bowl as ample evidence. Yes, it was only one game, but sneak a peek at what he did after taking over as the Trojans’ No. 1 quarterback early in the 2016 season and you’ll have all the proof you need to see why he is special.

Right now, it looks very much as though three teams with dramatic quarterback needs will battle for Darnold’s services. You root for one of those teams. The others are the Los Angeles Rams and New York Jets, franchises located in major NFL markets, both figuratively frothing at the prospect of drafting him.

Those are the teams the Browns have to beat in the race to the bottom of the league and the top of the draft. They host the Jets in game four on Oct. 1, a game they must lose in the event tiebreakers are required to decide draft position.

The Rams and Jets are bad teams. The Browns are awful, especially on offense, but getting better, especially on defense. The downside is if they experience another season like the last one, it is highly likely coach Hue Jackson’s job will be in jeopardy.

Owner Jimmy Haslam III is renown for his knee-jerk reactions in the past with regard to his head coaches. A second straight embarrassing season could trigger another of those knee jerks.

That would be a mistake.

Jackson deserves a chance to work with a quarterback who gives him an honest chance at success in Cleveland. He didn’t have that chance last season and this season’s quarterbacks class in Berea does not provide much hope, either.

This franchise has waited long enough for its franchise quarterback to come along. One more season of abject futility won’t hurt any more than the 18 that preceded it, especially with a Sam Darnold lurking.