O-Line Should be Strength

Injuries, inconsistency and inexperience hampered the Browns throughout the 2011 season. Looking ahead, the lumps the Browns line struggled with a season ago could payoff in the 2012 season and beyond.

The Browns just finished another double-digit loss season and questions abound throughout the roster. Are the Browns heading in the right direction? Do the Browns have a core to build around?

The OBR is breaking down the Browns current roster position-by-position. In the fifth in the series, we will take a look at the offensive line.

Offensive Linemen: (Joe Thomas, Eric Steinbach, Alex Mack, Shawn Lauvao, Tony Pashos, Todd Pinkston, Steve Vallos, Artis Hicks, Oniel Cousins, John Greco).

One of the key losses for the Browns occurred before the season even began. When Eric Steinbach needed to have back surgery and was lost for the season, the Browns offense took a big blow. Steinbach had been one of the steadiest performers for the Browns since coming from the Bengals in free agency in 2007.

Left tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack earned the privilege of playing in the Pro Bowl after the 2010 season and Steinbach was one of the finalists in the Pro Bowl balloting as well. With Steinbach sandwiched between Thomas and Mack, the Browns had arguably one of the best left sides on the offensive line in football.

Having to re-shuffle the line, rookie Todd Pinkston was inserted at left guard for Steinbach. He played pretty well for a rookie, but clearly wasn't playing at the level of Steinbach. The Browns moved up in the draft, albeit the fifth-round, to draft Pinkston after being a standout tackle at Pitt. With a healthy Steinbach expected back, Pinkston could move and battle Tony Pashos at right tackle or could challenge Shawn Lauvao at right guard.

Here's a look at each of the 10 players who were on the roster or injured reserve last season:

Thomas—The perennial Pro Bowl player just made his fifth-straight Pro Bowl. He might be the best player on the team, so the Browns have a cornerstone in place at one of the most important positions on the offense. Thomas has started and played in all 60 of his NFL games.

Mack—He did not make the Pro Bowl after this season, but is clearly one of the best centers in the NFL. He, like Thomas, is very durable having started all 48 of the games he's played. He played through appendicitis and returned to play in the next game after the bye week after an appendectomy.

Steinbach—Missed the entire season after having preseason back surgery. Steinbach, 31, had only missed two games due to injury in his first eight NFL seasons. In the end of the season wrap up, Tom

Heckert said that Steinbach was recovered from his surgery and expected to be ready for the off-season program beginning in April.

Pinkston—Did a nice job stepping in as a rookie when Steinbach went down. He started all 16 games at left guard. Pinkston was drafted in the fifth-round, but the Browns targeted him and traded two picks to select him. With Steinbach's injury, Pinkston became a guard but it isn't clear if the Browns think he will stay at guard or move him to right tackle to battle or replace Pashos. Steinbach's injury was a blessing in disguise in regards to allowing Pinkston to play a full season.

Lauvao—After not getting to play as a rookie after suffering a preseason ankle injury, Lauvao started all 16 games at right guard. He established himself in the position, but could be pushed by Pinkston if the Browns sign a tackle in free agency or draft a tackle with one of their high picks. Lauvao was drafted in the third-round in 2010 and has the talent to play guard in the NFL for a long time.

Pashos—He played in 12 games after missing most of the preseason with an ankle injury. Pashos, 31, was on the injury report as a limited participant for most of the season as the coaches tried to rest his ankle. Pashos played over Hicks and Cousins, but clearly struggled in the passing game. Injuries have held him back the past three seasons and the nine-year veteran has struggled with injuries for most of his career.

Greco—He is a curious player. The Browns traded a precious draft pick to the Rams to acquire Greco after the injuries to Steinbach and Pashos surfaced in the preseason. It was assumed with Pat Shurmur's familiarity with Greco, he felt comfortable in plugging Greco into the lineup. However, the Browns opted to pick up Hicks and Cousins off of waivers after the final roster cuts and played both ahead of Greco in the beginning of the regular season until Pashos was able to return to the lineup. Greco was viewed as the jack-of-all-trades and backup at all positions on the line.

Hicks—He was brought in after injuries and the abrupt retirement of Billy Yates. Hicks started three games at right tackle, but couldn't keep the job or beat out Pashos when he returned.

Cousins-- He started just one game-- the season opener--but was replaced by Hicks and didn't play ahead of Hicks again.

Vallos--He looked as though he would start a game when Mack suffered appendicitis, but Mack played one game with it and then returned in less than two weeks after an appendectomy.

Bottom Line: A huge part of the line is Steinbach. Assuming he returns healthy, and there is no reason now to believe he won't, the Browns have two young Pro Bowl players (Thomas and Mack) of the five to go along with Steinbach-- a high level player himself-- who has been in the running to be a Pro Bowl player in his own right. The right side of the line is where the Browns need work.

Pashos has been injury-riddled for much of his career and the injuries have taken their toll on his body. The Browns need to address right tackle either with a proven unrestricted free agent tackle or by drafting a tackle in the first- or second-round. An option would be to move Pinkston to right tackle if they don't sign one or draft one. If they sign or draft a premier tackle, the right guard position would be very solid with Lauvao and Pinkston battling there for the starting role.

(Next: We will begin our breakdown of the defense with a look at the defensive line).


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