One of the few positive things about the disaster that has become the 2003 Cleveland Browns season is our rapidly climbing first round draft selection. While it is true that this team has many needs in addition to the offensive line, there is no question in my mind how this coming first round selection should be spent. Let me attempt to make my case.
Let's start with some statistics. Here's a look at some of the key numbers that relate to the Browns offensive line play this season:
- 31st in the NFL in rushing yards
- 25th in the NFL in yards per carry
- 29th in rushing touchdowns
- 27th in rushing 1st downs
- 32nd in rushes of 20+ yards
- 27th in sacks allowed
- 30th in yards lost to sacks
- 31st in passes of 20+ yards
- 31st in yards per pass
- 28th in yards per play
- 25th in 4th down conversion percentage
- 29th in fumbles lost
- 26th in interceptions thrown
Before you just go ahead and blame the injuries to Ross Verba and more recently, Jeff Faine, the numbers were not much better last season with a healthy Verba as well as Dave Wolabaugh (who nearly made the Pro Bowl this season with the Rams) manning the middle. A look back to 2002:
- 23rd in the NFL in rushing yards
- 24th in yards per rush
- 25th in rushing touchdowns
- 29th in rushing 1st downs
- 25th in rushes of 20+ yards
- 20th in yards per play
- 28th in 3rd and 4th down conversions of two yards or less
- Had the lowest percentage of running plays in the red zone at 39%
But wait! The line played much better over the second half of the 2002 season I hear you saying. That must skew the above numbers, right? Let's take a closer look at the second half of 2002, including the Steelers playoff game, when everyone couldn't stop talking about how well our line played.
- During that stretch, the Browns faced five of the twelve worst run defenses in the league.
- The other four teams we played in 2nd half '02 (Pittsburgh twice, Carolina, Baltimore) held us to 277 yards on 93 carries (2.9 average).
- Take out WR reverses (9-96) over those last 8 games, and our running backs averaged 3.9 yards per carry over that stretch in which the line allegedly played so well. Considering some of the atrocious defenses we faced in that span...those figures are far from impressive.
- In the playoff game against the Steelers, with our line 100% healthy, willing, and able: 28 rushes for 38 yards.
The Browns offensive line needs reconstructive surgery. I see Jeff Faine and Ryan Tucker as the two pieces I want to build around. Ross Verba and his ruptured bicep cannot be counted on for next season (especially not at tackle), even though he has recently stated that he would be willing to renegotiate the 4.6 million he is owed for next season. Barry Stokes, who is a gusty guy, and great locker room presence…is nothing more than a backup tackle in this league that is neither big nor strong enough to play guard. Shaun O'Hara and Paul Zukauskas should not be NFL starters, nonetheless a starting tandem. Melvin Fowler is worthless, and I cannot envision any scenario that even has him on this roster as a backup player next season. And Chad Beasley, Enoch DeMar, and Joaquin Gonzalez are what they are…undrafted or barely drafted spare parts that are overmatched just about every time they enter the game.
My ideal scenario with regards to the 2004 Browns offensive line plays out like this:
- Draft Robert Gallery (more on him in a second) to play left tackle. Keep Ryan Tucker at right tackle and continue to work with him on his footwork in dealing with speed rushers. I have no problem with Barry Stokes as a backup tackle. Another tackle should be added to push Stokes for the backup spot.
- Sign one of the top free agent guards. There are a couple good ones likely to be available in Carolina as unrestricted free agents. Also, Adam Timmerman from St. Louis figures to be available. I plan on keeping a keen eye on the free agent guard situation as it develops. Also, a guard must be drafted late on day one or early on day two. I don't want any more "versatile" hybrid guards. I want a big, mean, tough, run blocking guard. Also, I believe that a restructured Verba, Zukauskas, and possibly even O'Hara (due primarily to his ability to back up Faine at center) can still be in the mix. But any scenario that has two of the aforementioned three players starting will be completely unacceptable.
- Jeff Faine is the future at center. Nothing needs done, although we obviously will need a lineman on the roster capable of backing him up…and it cannot be Melvin Fowler.
The offensive line is a unit of eight, not a unit of five. While the Browns starting five to start this season (especially after the Verba injury) was amongst the leagues poorest units…their depth was even worse. I would venture to say that not one of the Browns backup linemen will be on an NFL roster next season save Fowler, who will likely get another shot because he was a 3rd round selection. The offensive line needs to be addressed assuming that your 8th man will be forced to play every week. The overhaul necessary with this unit is more severe than most of us realize, and the arduous task of remaking this offensive front must start now, because rarely is it able to be done in one season.
The overhaul must start with a left tackle. And upon doing some research as to how one goes about acquiring a franchise left tackle, I found the results a bit surprising.
What I did was take all ten tackles that have made the Pro Bowl over the past three seasons. I added to that list the four tackles that consistently came up when reading through the four or five "Pro Bowl Snub" columns I printed off the web. Of those fourteen players, twelve (86%) were 1st round draft choices. One was picked in the second round, and one was picked in the fourth round. Of those twelve first round picks, ten (83%) were taken in the first half of the first round.
I also discovered that in the last seven NFL drafts, dating back to 1996, only one tackle picked outside of the first round has made the Pro Bowl. That player is Flozell Adams, who made the Pro Bowl this season, and was taken with the 6th pick of the second round in 1998. Each of the other five Pro Bowl tackles this season were all high first round selections.
And lastly, I took a look at the top five scoring offenses in the NFL this season. Every single one of those teams starts a highly selected 1st round talent at left tackle.
- St. Louis Rams-Orlando Pace (1st overall pick)
- Minnesota Vikings-Bryant McKinnie (7th overall pick)
- Kansas City Chiefs-Willie Roaf (8th overall pick)
- Indianapolis Colts-Tarik Glenn (19th overall pick)
- Tennessee Titans-Brad Hopkins (13th overall pick)
These above teams would all be in the playoffs if they started today. Of the other seven projected playoff teams, another four (Bal-Ogden, Phil-T.Thomas, Car-Steussie, Sea-W.Jones) have 1st round left tackles. Two others have second round left tackles (NE-M.Light, Dal-F.Adams)..while Denver continues to beat the odds and produce incredible lines out of low draft picks.
Regarding my suggestion as to who the Browns should target as that franchise left tackle in this years draft, as well as the namesake of this column…I'll save that for another piece. I'll just say that he is one of the top tackle prospects to leave college in some time and would look incredible flanking the left side for Faine and Tucker.