If you had to pick one unit on the Cleveland Browns deep enough to take a hit, you’d pick the offensive line.
Even with that I have a feeling they will miss backup guard Billy Yates, who abruptly retired this week. We tend to not think of backup offensive lineman as that important, but Yates was a contributor. He played in 9 games last season, starting in 3.
He had experience with the other starters on the Browns offensive line, where chemistry is so important.
Plus, those 3 starts for Yates just happened to be the Browns best games of the year––wins over the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots, and an overtime loss to the New York Jets.
This Peyton Hillis run is often cited for the great block laid out by FB Lawrence Vickers, but watch closely. That’s Yates (#68) on the right side with a great jump off the line to stone Vince Wilfork (#75):
That unit was gelling right before our eyes…and then Yates went down with a torn biceps and was lost for the season.
This off-season, the Browns parted ways with pretty much everyone over the age of 30 in the interest of getting younger and faster (Shaun Rogers, Eric Barton, David Bowens, Kenyon Coleman, John St. Clair, Abe Elam, etc). Yet, they chose to resign Yates as a free agent who was 31. That pretty much says it all.
The Browns depth along the line is still good with the additions of Jason Pinkston (draft) and John Greco (trade with Rams). After the injury to guard Eric Steinbach, Pinkston is in line to start against the Detroit Lions tomorrow, across from defensive tackle terror Ndamukong Suh.
Their depth is now being tested. It’s also never guaranteed, something we learned first-hand back in 2006.
That off-season the Browns landed the top free agent on the market in LeCharles Bentley, a move which allowed them to trade former first-round pick center Jeff Faine to New Orleans. Bentley’s tragic exit with a career-ending knee injury on the first play of training camp is something Browns fans will never forget.
But it got worse, and weirder, from there.
One week after Bentley went down, backup center Bob Hallen abruptly retired, citing a back problem the Browns claimed to know nothing about. Without a center, they scrambled and signed veteran Todd Washington, and developmental backup Alonzo Ephraim.
Washington then also suddenly retired a week later, and Ephraim was suspended by the league for substance abuse.
This forced the Browns to trade a 2007 draft pick to the Bears for their backup center Lennie Friedman. A week later, they traded again – this time it was a 2008 pick to the Eagles for their backup center Hank Fraley.
In all, the Browns burned through six centers in a month.
Fraley finally solved the riddle, and just a week after his acquisition was the starter for the season opener, ironically against the Saints and Jeff Faine. The Browns lost, and finished 4-12 that year overall.