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.

1 comment:

  1. Pretty good summary, Rich. I suppose this leads on to an assessment of which are the best backup linemen to keep? Greco has experience, versatility - but youth is not on his side. Fabiano can play two positions, at least he could, as a student athlete. Reiter might be a better pure center. Johnson may or may not be a better tackle than Erving- however much of a recommendation that is. I like Drango's toughness and attitude.....but I wonder what the coaches think?