BEREA, Ohio--The Browns thought they had made a wise move to protect themselves from losing Pro Bowl center Alex Mack in free agency last year by using the 19th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft to select Cameron Erving. Even though it was a season before Mack could leave, they felt they were being proactive in making the move.
Erving took over as planned in 2016 after Mack left, but never really took control of the opportunity and consistently graded out below average week after week at center. So much so, by the end of the season, the Browns moved him out to right tackle to see if that could be the best fit for the former No. 1 pick.
The Browns tried four different players at center during the course of the 2016 season, including Erving, John Greco, Austin Reiter and Anthony Fabiano and still were unsure what to do heading into 2017. They liked what they saw of Reiter and Fabiano in their one start apiece, but the sample size was very small. Reiter tore his ACL in the only game he played. Fabiano played in the season finale against the Steelers.
Rather than waiting to draft another center, the Browns decided to overhaul their offensive line up the middle and signed former Packers starting center J. C. Tretter to come in and fortify the position. Tretter was reported to receive a three-year, $16.75 million deal, including $10 million guaranteed.
“J.C. is a very athletic center who played in Green Bay and did a good job for them,” Hue Jackson said after the signing. “He had a little injury history, but comes here healthy and ready to go. We’re happy to have him.”
Tretter (6-3, 307) is entering his fifth NFL season out of Cornell. Originally selected by Green Bay in the fourth round of the 2013 draft, Tretter has appeared in 31 games with 10 starts. He has seen action at center, left guard, left tackle and right tackle during his career, but all of his regular season starts have come at center. He opened the first seven games last season for Green Bay before a knee injury ended his season. The Packers finished in the top eight in the NFL in total offense during three of his four seasons with the club.
Tretter, 26, is looking at joining the Browns as a fresh opportunity.
“I am excited about the opportunity," Tretter said last week. "You truly kind of reach your potential when you can play one position and kind of dial in every day at practice and work on your craft. Obviously, I bounced around a bit position to position in Green Bay during my four years, but I think center has always been my best position and the position that I had the most potential.
"I am excited to have that opportunity to every day at practice take the reps and dial in at the little fundamentals and technique that make a great center," he said. "I am looking forward to working at it.”
Tretter thinks center is his best position and enjoys the challenge of making the calls on the offensive line.
“I enjoy having the responsibility of making all of the calls and getting everybody on the same page," he said. "The center’s job has to be synced up with the quarterback and making sure that you have the same thought process and can dissect the defense the same way he can and in that way kind of take something off the quarterback’s plate where he can know that the protection unit is taken care of and he can focus on the routes and the coverages.
"I enjoy having that responsibility on my shoulders," he said. "As for why I enjoy playing center, it is that and I think it fits my skills. I like getting out and moving. I think at the center position, having an athletic center who can get out in open space and get to the second level truly helps a team succeed.”
Tretter is excited to play between guards Joel Bitonio and newly signed fellow free agent Kevin Zeitler.
“It will be great," he said. "Obviously, when I was in Green Bay, we had (former Packers and Bears G) Josh Sitton and (Packers G) T.J. Lang so it is great surrounding yourself with players at the top of their position. That is what you have here now.
"Whenever you have guys who are as good as it gets in the league right now, you have the opportunity to really go out there and succeed, and I think everybody really raises their level of play as you increase the talent in the room," he said. "I think people will also begin to play better around because they will be playing up to the expectation of other players.”
Tretter admitted having Joe Thomas, Bitonio and Zeitler helped convince him to sign with the Browns.
“You start from my position, being on the offensive line, you look at the guys they have in that room already with Joe and Joel. When you can surround yourself with great players, you have to look at that opportunity. Obviously, you add Kevin into that and you have the potential to be a truly great line and really mesh together and build something special. That opportunity to come in and play center and play with the guys that I’ll be around and in that room is an opportunity that you can’t really pass up.”
Tretter was graded as one of the top centers in the NFL during the time he was on the field.Pro Football Focus ranked him as the ninth-best center in the games he played in. His biggest problem has been injuries, but he hopes those are behind him.
“Obviously, I have had my fair share of bumps in the road," he said. "The first year, I broke my leg in a fluke fumble recovery drill on the first day of OTAs. The next two times, I was hurt where guys ran into the side of my knee. The way I look at it is both of those times it could have been a heck of a lot worse than it ended up being.
"I try to look on the bright side that I think if you just insert Player X into my position there, they could be a lot worse off after that," he said. "I think I have taken kind of some hard blows and been able to bounce back. I am 100 percent healthy now and feel really good. I am not too worried about kind of fluke things. It is the game of football. It is a physical game and sometimes guys fall into your knees. I am not too worried about that being a reoccurring issue.”
Browns Claim Bengals WR: The Browns claimed former Bengals WR James Wright on waivers Tuesday. Wright (6-0, 203) is entering his fourth NFL season out of LSU. Originally a seventh-round draft pick by Cincinnati in 2014, Wright has appeared in 24 games with two starts. He has recorded 18 receptions for 197 yards and added five rushes for 24 yards. He also has registered 16 career special teams tackles. Last season, he appeared in 13 games and logged 13 receptions for 106 yards and finished second on the Bengals with 11 special teams tackles. Wright will be re-united with Hue Jackson, who was the Bengals offensive coordinator until last season.