Saturday, July 14, 2018

Questions seeking answers Part 1

 For the offense . . .

Who will replace Joe Thomas at offensive left tackle?

Whoever wins this battle will be the ultimate loser. Why? How do you adequately replace a Hall of Famer? You don’t. No matter how he does, the winner will always be held to a standard impossible to reach because of his predecessor.

The combatants: Shon Coleman, Austin Corbett, Desmond Harrison, Greg Robinson and maybe, just maybe, Joel Bitonio.

Coleman, who played right tackle in mediocre fashion last season, should win the job, mainly because he returns to his more natural position. Corbett, the rookie second-round pick, played the position in college and is a long shot because he doesn’t have the heft to play there in the National Football League.

Harrison is strictly a project and Robinson, a major disappointment since being the second overall selection in the 2014 college draft, also belongs in the long shot category. That’s where Bitonio enters the picture. If no one steps up and takes command, the coaching staff could use him as a fallback solution.

Arguably the best offensive lineman with Thomas’ retirement, the left guard played left tackle in college just ahead of Corbett at Nevada. It would be easy to move him over to tackle and slip Corbett in at guard. Or would it?

Offensive line coach Bob Wylie disagrees. “(Bitonio) is an elite guard,” he says, “one of the top four or five in the league. You put him tackle and he becomes what . . . just a tackle.”

Not really, He becomes your best bet at left tackle, a position he couldn’t play with the Browns coming out of college because Thomas was already there. And Corbett could duplicate what Bitonio did coming out of school by moving to guard.

It might not happen coming out of training camp because the coaching staff is dead set on Coleman winning the job, but it won’t take long to discover the error of their ways and Bitonio very likely will eventually wind up protecting the quarterback’s blind side.

The rest of the line is set with JC Tretter at center, Kevin Zeitler at right guard and newcomer Chris Hubbard at right tackle.

What about Tretter? He played well in the ground game, but had problems in pass protection. Austin Reiter played well at the pivot, but couldn’t stay healthy.

And that’s the problem. Tretter has a larger contract and played every snap last season after some injury-riddled seasons. The job is Tretter’s. Reiter provides solid depth. Corbett can also play center if needed

Speaking of depth, who provides it elsewhere along the line?

Robinson and Harrison will likely stick around as insurance at tackle, along with Spencer Drango at guard and Reiter.

It all sounds like a stronger line with regard to the running game, right?

Definitely and with Todd Haley on board as offensive coordinator, count on the Cleveland infantry game to better balance the offense, which passed the football nearly two-thirds of the time under head coach/offensive coordinator Hue Jackson the last two seasons.

Also count on better production with newcomers Carlos Hyde and rookie Nick Chubb running behind that line. Both are churners and north/south runners who get to the line of scrimmage quickly and combine brute strength with that quickness.

What about the passing game?

The need to drop back into pass protection lessens significantly, providing, of course, the ground game clicks. It is much harder to protect the quarterback than it is aggressively attack the opponent on the ground.

Ideally, the run/pass ratio of a good offense, even in today’s pass-happy NFL, is in the 50/50 neighborhood, a neighborhood Jackson failed to visit in spectacular fashion the last two seasons. It won’t take Haley long to balance that scale.

How healthy is the passing game?

As healthy as it has been in many, many seasons. The Browns had, not even arguably, the worst set of receivers in the league for the last several seasons. When a running back is your top receiver, you have problems.

What is the difference?

A clean Josh Gordon and Jarvis Landry, one of the best possession receivers in the league, that’s what. If the spectacular Gordon remains free of his off-the-field problems, and Landry continues his 100-catch-a-season pace, that right there is scary enough.

Anything else?

Lots of ifs. Corey Coleman faces a make-or-break season, having failed to live up to his first-round draft status in his first two seasons. Hopefully he has learned to run the route tree by now and catches the ball with his hands.

Rookie Antonio Callaway’s off the-field problems cost him a shot at being taken in the first round of the draft and General Manager John Dorsey is clearly gambling the kid has straightened out his life. If so, he’s got a shot at jettisoning Coleman.

Returnees Ricardo Louis and Rashard Higgins are as good as gone with veteran Jeff Janis and late-round pick Damion Ratley on the cusp if Coleman somehow discovers how to play wide receiver in the NFL.

Next: Breaking down the quarterbacks and running backs.

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