The Browns offensive line is in the best shape it has been since 2007 when Joe Thomas stepped in and had a stellar rookie campaign and became an institution at left tackle. Last year, Mitchell Schwartz stepped in at right tackle with a great year in his own right. Alex Mack never seems to get his due but he is the best center in the division and is an extremely reliable pivot. The position that is still somewhat in flux is guard. The Browns have one of their starters picked out in John Greco but have not decided on where to play him yet; the other spot is going to be a fight in training camp between a few competitors and it is a battle featuring two completely different styles of guard.
For all of the great moves Tom Heckert made in his time as general manager, the most underappreciated and best bang for his buck has been the acquisition of Greco from the Rams for what was a conditional seventh round pick. For the cost of the change in their couch cushions, Greco went from a player who was scuffling a little bit trying to make an impact in the league to having a good season at left guard last season. The former Toledo Rocket could end up at left guard again this season but he is being looked at on the right side as well and the reason he is over there has everything to do with the players fighting for the other spot.
Jason Pinkston missed most of last year with a blood after having a solid rookie campaign playing left guard. Pinkston was cleared medically and has been working to get himself back to the promising player he was and wants to get his spot back. Pinkston played left guard and showed to be a good pass protector with lateral agility and the ability to play in a phone booth. He was a solid run blocker but not an overpowering one, which is what the Browns want from their right guard. The hope is they can find a bulldozer who line up next to Schwartz and create openings for Trent Richardson and the running game. Pinkston is not that guy and may never be that guy, but he can hold the left guard spot. Pinkston is largely the reason that Greco has been getting looked at for the right guard spot. If they go with Pinkston on the left side, their best move may be to put Greco on the right side to get their best five on the field. Greco needs to prove to be a good run blocker on the right side for this move to work, so Pinkston’s potential starting job may hinge on a couple of moving parts. To this point, this seems like the combination the Browns are favoring but camp has not started yet so there is time for that to change.
Some will say this is a make or break season for Shawn Lauvao but that is not clear to this point. It is his third year in the league and that tends to be the year where players are at their best, but Lauvao’s contract number is next to nothing, so it is not as if he would be cut to save money. Other guys would have to show enough to beat him out for a roster spot which is unlikely at this point. He would simply be valuable depth if he is unable to start; something the Browns can always use. Look no further than Greco to see that it can take linemen longer to develop as he was selected in the third round of the 2008 draft and it took until this past year for him to develop into the player the Rams were hoping to get. Lauvao has been a good run blocker on the right side of the line and can pull well, but he has had problems in pass protection and has struggled with his lateral agility. The Browns play in a division some terrific inside players on the defensive line including Geno Atkins and Haloti Ngata whom they face twice per season, so the right guard spot is important to establish the running game and to enable the quarterback a good pocket to throw the ball.
Lauvao’s best fit may be the right guard spot, but he is getting a look at the left guard spot. Unless he has made big strides in his ability to pass protect, this is a difficult fit for him, but if he can do it, he becomes a valuable weapon to run the ball. Because of his ability to pull and his ability to run block, a lineup with Lauvao and Greco could be a powerful run blocking line. If they run to the right and pull Lauvao, they are running behind Lauvao, Greco and Schwartz, which could be a nice matchup for the Browns to take advantage, especially with a back like Richardson. Lauvao has to prove he can protect the quarterback to play either guard spot but his best chance to start is to be impressive enough to have Greco go back to the left side, which is the group that was used much of last year. This is the tricky part of the Browns lineup as they have to find the best set up, which is likely going to come down to Pinkston and Greco or Greco and Lauvao. Should Lauvao be unable to win the job, the experience at left guard will be valuable as he then becomes depth at both positions, though he would likely come in at right guard with Pinkston or Greco on the left.
Ryan Miller has become somewhat of a forgotten man to this point, which is difficult to do at 6’7” 320lbs. Miller was selected in the fifth round from Colorado as a developmental lineman who could potentially backup both guard spots and right tackle. He finds himself in a difficult position potentially as he was selected by the previous regime. Miller should be in a good competition with a few young guys to try to make the roster in a battle that will not get a ton of press but could be fun to watch in practice and the preseason. Since he was not picked by Joe Banner and company, he is going to have to fight his way into making the roster and seeing what progress he has made, but his potential versatility makes him more difficult to lose.
The most notable competition for Miller is Garrett Gilkey, one of the team’s seventh round picks in this year’s draft. Like Miller, Gilkey is a mountain of a man and is an impressive athlete for his size. Gilkey played at Chadron State and was dominant, but the level of competition was a question mark. He did get a chance to show what he could do at the Senior Bowl but showed that he is still has a lot of developing to do, especially as a pass blocker. As a run blocker, Gilkey is fun to watch. He plays with a great motor and is light on his feet, so he is able to get out in front of the running play and maul opponents. Gilkey plays with a great mean streak and looks to dominate opponents whenever possible. Both in practice and in the preseason, he could be fun to watch as he just gets after people and does everything he can to make things happen. If his football intelligence is even half of his drive and determination on the field, he has the chance to be a good player in this league and he has a chance to draw some notice in camp just because of how big and active he is. Gilkey is going to be a little bit of a project who might take a year or few to get ready for the NFL but he should be quality depth as he learns the position.
The wildcard could be undrafted free agent Chris Faulk. Faulk missed all of last year at LSU with a knee injury but opted to leave early anyway along with a number of other Bayou Bengals. Faulk played left tackle for LSU but he is extremely well suited for the guard position in the NFL. He is an enormous human being with strength to help create running lanes but being athletic enough to play tackle in the SEC would suggest that he should have the ability to protect well at guard. He needs to continue getting quicker with his feet and work on his technique but he was well thought of coming into last season before the injury. There were some lofty projections for him as a draft prospect, so his loss could be the Browns gain. He is supposed to be healthy for camp but his rehab from the knee injury could be an ongoing process and it would not be surprising if Faulk ends up being put on injured reserve at some point, so the Browns can stash him on their roster for another year if they like what they see. Faulk could also end up on the practice squad.
The Browns may or may not have the long term answer to the guard position on their roster right now but offensive line coach George Warhop has a ton of young talent to work with, so he should extremely happy trying to get the most he can out of these guys and love the fact that there will be so much competition in training camp. The Browns will hopefully have some good guard play on the starting unit in preseason but their second and third team could potentially really beat up opponents and be fun to watch. They could have a lineup of Miller at right tackle with Faulk and Gilkey at the guard spots in what would be nearly 1,000 pounds of offensive linemen powering the running game during the preseason.
Hopefully the Browns have their answer at guard somewhere on this roster, but if they deem it a big enough issue to draft it early, there are a few guys that will fit the bigger, stronger offensive linemen the Browns have been looking to find the past few years. Cyril Richardson of Baylor is perhaps the most highly ranked of the group and he will be blocking for Lache Seastrunk this year. Gabe Jackson of Mississippi State is coming into his fourth year of starting at the left guard spot for the Bulldogs but could move over to the right guard spot in the NFL. And while he is not quite the bulldozer type of the previous two, Anthony Steen is the least known from Alabama’s offensive line from last year, but is a talented player in his own right and could play both guard spots at the next level but might be better suited as a left guard.
The Browns seem to have four spots on the offensive line set to this point even though is it not clear where one of them will be playing this season. While quarterback is and will always be the biggest issue with the Browns, the fact their offensive line is so young and so effective is going to be a huge reason they are successful in the coming years offensively. They have one of the better young groups in the league even with the questions at guard and while that is a question mark, it is not the situation it has been in some years. There is talent on the roster instead of just throwing guys at spots and hoping for the best. The days of plug and pray seem to be over and they seem to have this mythical concept known as depth and competition on their roster (knock on wood). The Browns appear to hope that Pinkston and Greco can win the jobs at the guard spots, but there is plenty of time to change minds between now and the start of the season. Outside of Greco who is in his sixth year, the rest of the guards are in their third season or younger, so they could grow quite a bit and have a nice pipeline of development going forward. Not everyone loves interior line play but as opposed to being scared to look at what the Browns have there, fans should be excited to see what some of these guys are able to do and what they could help this offense achieve this coming season and going forward.