The offensive line has been a bit of an enigma for the Browns. The perception, particularly early in the 2015 season was that the line was not playing well. The Browns struggled to get the running game going, rushing for 1,529 yards (twenty-second in the league) and an average of 4.0 yards per carry (tied for sixteenth). The Browns also gave up 53 sacks for the season (tied for second-most) and were sacked on 8% of their pass plays (tied for seventh-worst).
Despite these numbers, Alex Mack and Joe Thomas made the Pro Bowl. Thomas and Mitchell Schwartz were the second and sixth highest rated tackles in the league according to Pro Football Focus. Were the Browns’ struggles a matter of scheme or fit? With a new offense coming from head coach Hue Jackson, we will likely find out.
On the Roster for 2016:
Joe Thomas, Joel Bitonio, Alex Mack, John Greco, Cameron Erving, Garth Gerhart, Dan France, Conor Bofeli, Erle Ladson and Michael Bowie.
Who Could the Browns Lose:
Alex Mack can become an unrestricted free agent if he opts out of his contract, which most expect that he will. Mitchell Schwartz is an unrestricted free agent that will draw interest from teams around the league. The 26 year-old from Cal has not missed a snap in his career and is in line for a nice payday.
Is the Need: Low, Medium or High:
If Mack opts out and Mitchell Schwartz leaves through free agency the need is high. Last year the Browns spent a first round pick on Cameron Erving, who had a disastrous rookie season on the field. According to PFF, Erving’s play earned him the 80th ranking in the league at guard out of 82. When he was drafted it was thought that Erving could become Mack’s eventual replacement. His performance was an indictment on General Manager Ray Farmer, who was released immediately after the season.
Joe Thomas expressed concern after Mike Pettine and his staff were let go that he may ask for a trade, but has voiced support for Hue Jackson and likely won’t be making any trade demands.
Thomas and Bitonio will anchor the left side of the line, but without Mack and Schwartz the left side is completely up in the air. John Greco remains an option for right guard, though he did work at center a little during training camp.
Top Free Agents at the Position:
Cordy Glenn and Russell Okung are the names you are most likely to hear when it comes to offensive tackles in free agency. Both could receive the franchise tag by their respective teams (Buffalo and Seattle), but both are also left tackles and not likely to be considered by the Browns for a right tackle spot.
Joe Barksdale (San Diego) is a right tackle to keep an eye on if Schwartz leaves. The former LSU standout is 28, and has started 45-of-48 games the past three seasons. Cincinnati’s Andre Smith is another potential replacement, especially with his familiarity with Hue Jackson’s offense. Anything else at right tackle is likely to be less than replacement-level player material.
At center, the pickings are actually slimmer. Jacksonville’s Stefan Wisniewski had a fine season. He is 26 and from Penn State. Ironically, the Jaguars are the team that pursued Alex Mack and the reason Mack has an opt-out from his contract now. Wisniewski would likely be a cheaper solution than Mack for either the Browns or Jaguars. Washington’s Josh LeRibeus is also available, but a steep downgrade from Mack or Wisniewski.
There are a number of quality guards available, which could entice the Browns to try and juggle positions a bit. The top names at the position are Richie Incognito (BUF), Geoff Schwartz (NYG and Mitchell’s older brother) Evan Mathis (DEN), Kelechi Osemele (BAL), Ramon Foster (PIT) and Jeff Allen (KC).
Top NFL Draft Prospects:
Leremy Tunsil (T, Ole Miss) is a top five talent in the draft and will be a left tackle in the NFL. Other top tackles include Ronnie Stanley (Notre Dame), Jack Conklin (Michigan State), Taylor Decker (Ohio State), Shon Coleman (Auburn), Le’Raven Clark (Texas Tech) and Germain Ifedi (Texas A&M) should all go in the first two rounds. Four or five could potentially be first round picks.
The top center in the draft is Alabama’s Ryan Kelly. Nick Martin (Notre Dame) also appears ready be a starter his first year in the league. Jack Allen (Michigan State) is a name to watch for the middle rounds.
The Browns may have to revamp the middle and right side of the offensive line. Mitchell Schwartz took a beating from fans and media his rookie year, but has improved and is realistically one of the top ten right tackles in the league. If Alex Mack walks away, it would be wise of the Browns to wrap Schwartz up. Expect to see competition at right guard and center in training camp.