(The OBR will do a position-by-position review of each of the Browns positions as the team heads toward the 2015 season. The fifth part will be the offensive line.)
The case could be made that the strength of the Browns is their offensive line. The team has invested heavily in the line through the draft, as well as monetarily. Joe Thomas (3rd overall) and Alex Mack (21st overall) were first round draft picks, while Joel Bitonio (35th overall) and Mitchell Schwartz (37th overall) were drafted highly in the second round. John Greco is the only starter not drafted by the team and he just finished the second year of a five year contract extension.
Thomas and Mack have been to multiple Pro Bowls and Bitonio is on the verge of joining the elite company. The question remains if the right side with Schwartz and Greco are just average or better than that.
There’s no question the Browns need depth on the line. Arguably, the case could be made that the Browns offense began to go downhill after Mack suffered a broken leg in the fifth game. At the time, the Browns were 3–2, but the offense was near the top in the NFL in rushing.
The domino effect of losing Mack ended up seeing the Browns using three different centers for the rest of the season.
Thomas had another Pro Bowl season and Bitonio proved to be one of the best draft choices of this year’s class.
Joe Thomas — Thomas completed his eighth-straight season with his eighth Pro Bowl appearance. He was also named Associated Press first team All-Pro. Remarkably, Thomas has yet to miss an offensive snap (7,917) since joining the Browns as the third overall draft pick in 2007. Thomas is now third in Browns history with eight Pro Bowl selections, trailing just Hall of Famers Jim Brown and Lou Groza, who have nine apiece. Thomas is the first offensive lineman in NFL history to go to the Pro Bowl in his first eight seasons. The future Hall of Famer still anchors the Browns line.
Alex Mack — Mack started the first five games of the season to give him 85 straight games that he played every snap until he broke his leg in the second quarter and was placed on injured reserve on Oct. 17. Mack was given the transition tag last March and he signed an offer sheet from the Jaguars, which the Browns matched. Mack has an opt out clause in his contract after this season and the Browns better hope they make a push to the playoffs in 2015 or Mack could walk. Mack’s absence showed how valuable he was to the offense.
Joel Bitonio — The most productive of the 2014 draft picks after being the second round pick (35th overall). Bitonio started all 16 games at left guard and played every snap of the season on offense. He was voted to the Pro Football Writers Association All-AFC team, the only offensive rookie selected. He also was on the PFWA All-Rookie team.
John Greco — Greco started all 16 games on the line, 15 at right guard and one at center after Mack was injured. He also played every snap on offense this season. Greco signed a five-year contract extension before the 2013 season.
Mitchell Schwartz — Schwartz has started all 48 games at right tackle since the Browns drafted him in 2012, having not missed a snap since joining the Browns.
Paul McQuistan — The unrestricted free agent appeared in 14 games with one start. He played mostly on special teams but his one start was against the Jaguars at right guard the week after Mack was injured. Showed he is a versatile backup, but wasn’t dominant in his one start.
Nick McDonald — McDonald took over at center after he came off the reserve/non-football injury list after Mack was lost for the season. Greco started one game and then McDonald stepped in against the Raiders and started the next seven games before injuring his ankle against the Bills. Ryan Seymour stepped in and started the next two games before Seymour was injured allowing McDonald to start the season finale.
Andrew McDonald — McDonald was signed late in the season from the Colts after being inactive for two games. He played two games for the Seahawks and was inactive for six games in Seattle.
Ryan Seymour — Seymour was claimed from the 49ers and played 11 games with the Browns, including three starts. Seymour took over for Nick McDonald when he was injured against the Bills and started the next three games before injuring his hamstring against the Panthers, which caused him to miss the last game.
Michael Bowie — Bowie was claimed by the Browns after the Seahawks waived him due to a shoulder injury. The Browns placed him on injured reserve on Aug. 26, shortly after having surgery. Bowie was a seventh-round draft choice of the Seahawks in 2013 and he started eight games during the Seahawks’ Super Bowl season. Bowie is expected to be in the mix for a spot on the line.
Karim Barton — Barton was an undrafted rookie who finished the season on the practice squad.
Braxston Cave — Cave spent the second season with the Browns on the practice squad.
Summary: The return of Mack should allow the Browns to get their rushing attack get back on track. The trio of Thomas, Mack and Bitonio give the Browns a very strong nucleus on the offensive line.
Schwartz and Greco are very dependable and solid, but the Browns might try and create competition on the right side of the line either with some of the returning players, through free agency or even in the draft.
(Next Up will we’ll start on the defense with the secondary)