In some ways, it's 2007 all over again in Cleveland.
From the battering of a diminutive quarterback to the diva outbursts of an overhyped offensive talent back to a coach who appears to be swimming upstream, it's like the Browns haven't moved an inch in five years.
Heading into the 2012 offseason, it appears that yet again veteran guard Eric Steinbach could be the glue that bonds the Browns' offensive line, at least according to Team President Mike Holmgren. Although certainly younger talent exists in All-Pro Joe Thomas and Alex Mack, Steinbach's back injury forced the Browns to insert rookie Jason Pinkston into the starting lineup in 2011.
The results were mixed, as Pinkston proved durable, yet was overmatched at times – particularly in terms of pass protection. While the Browns received maximum value with Pinkston – a 5th round draft pick – it's not even clear that left guard will be the Pittsburgh product's primary position.
As evidenced by Colt McCoy's itchy trigger finger and Peyton Hillis' Madden Curse of a season, the Browns have bigger issues on their offensive – primarily on the right side. Right guard Shawn Lauvao, one of GM Tom Heckert's 2010 draft picks, also proved durable yet inconsistent. Right tackle Tony Pashos was a steep upgrade from John St. Clair, but could not stay healthy for most of the season.
Which brings us back to Steinbach.
Ideally – at least as Holmgren's thinking suggests – Steinbach is fully healed from his back injury and should regain his starting spot at left guard. Steinbach's return could shift Pinkston to right tackle – unless Heckert invests another draft pick on his offensive line.
In theory, these moves make sense, as right tackle is probably a more natural fit for Pinkston. Assuming that Lauvao continues to progress, the Browns' line could organically improve in 2012.
Of course, this bit of logic is predicated on the idea that Steinbach remains healthy and can return to form.
Although it's worth noting that Steinbach has regressed in his last two years of action. Never a powerful blocker, Steinbach relied more on technique and veteran craft to survive during his first two years in Cleveland. However, 2009 and 2010 showed glimpses of an undersized lineman who was merely surviving against more athletic talent.
While Steinbach's contributions to the Browns have been significant – particularly in the manner of bringing along both Thomas and Mack into the league – the veteran guard may soon become another liability on a Browns' line that needs to improve.
Considering that Heckert has already established a precedent of selecting an offensive lineman in each of his two Cleveland drafts, we can probably assume 2012 will follow order. However, with the tenuous state of both Steinbach and Pashos, perhaps Heckert also reaches for a free agent to bolster the line.
NOT GOING TO HAPPEN
When a player like Nicks reaches the open market, the value of NFL free agency is validated. Nicks is probably the best player in the league at his position, has played for a championship team and is only 27 years old in a league where linemen can thrive into their early 30's.
Nicks is also 6'5, 350 lbs., yet is an amazing interior pass protector. The exact thing that Nicks excels at is one of the problems that plagued the 2011 Browns – protecting inside pass rushes. Both Pinkston and Mack were continually victimized by opposing defenses who aimed additional rushers at the heart of the Browns' line. Watching Nicks continually give Drew Brees a clean pocket for the past few years gives one visions of a Browns' offense where the quarterback doesn't have to settle for the quickest pass option.
Of course, any potential Nicks signing will cost money. A lot of money. There is also the chance that the Saints re-sign their All-Pro guard once a new deal is done for Brees.
IF ONLY PHIL SAVAGE WERE STILL AROUND
Can you only imagine if the 2007 time machine was real?
After re-re-re negotiating Braylon Edwards' contract, a 2012 Savage would easily throw 75 million dollars at Nicks.
But then again, just imagine what he would do with those two first round picks the Browns are sitting on.
FOR THE RIGHT PRICE
The Browns probably missed their chance to grab a premier free agent last season when Marshall Yanda re-signed with the Ravens. Yanda has completely dominated the Browns' Ahtyba Rubin over the past two seasons. However, because of the money invested in Yanda, the Ravens are unlikely to re-sign Grubbs – who is a solid pass protector.
Briesel plays with a nasty demeanor and could bring a much needed attitude to the right side of the Browns' line. However, it's always a gamble for teams to invest money in offensive linemen coming from zone blocking schemes. While Houston's running game is perhaps the best in the league, it's unclear if Briesel is simply a product of an effective system.
Perhaps the entire free agent group of offensive linemen could fall under the characterization of "injury specials." Since linemen get beat on every single play, there is virtually no such thing as a "healthy" lineman. Throw in several years of this abuse and the above list is indicative of the best talent available. However, McKenzie, Gaither and Bell would be upgrades over Pashos – assuming that these players remain relatively healthy. Bell in particular was impressive before injuries ruined his 2011 season.
Did you think we would stop at Danny Amendola? It could be a 2010 Rams reunion in Cleveland next season. And wait for it – Bell is a Cleveland native. That PD puff piece will write itself.
Over the past two off seasons, Heckert has stuck to his pledge of building the Browns through the draft. However, now two of those players – Lauvao and Pinkston – will have to be counted on to bolster the offensive line in 2012. If Pinkston is deemed a suitable right tackle prospect, then it would appear unlikely the Browns draft an offensive linemen in April's early rounds.
Likewise, it doesn't make a lot of sense for the Browns to throw money at a free agent lineman – unless the market for Nicks is not as vibrant as it would appear. The rest of the free agent candidates come with injury risks – similar to 2010's signing of Pashos. Obviously, the ideal solution would come in the draft – probably in the middle to late rounds as Heckert's history has suggested.
Otherwise, look for Jacob Bell to fill in for an injured Pashos this November, while Pinkston slides back over to left guard to relieve a hobbled Steinbach.