In 2007, the Browns brought in Joe Thomas to be a franchise left tackle and set up the offensive line for over a decade and he has been every bit of the player they hoped he would be. When he was drafted, the Browns had a great right tackle in Ryan Tucker, who was signed as a free agent from the St. Louis Rams under Butch Davis. He was a fantastic run blocker who would occasionally get beaten in pass protection by speed rushers but was just an extremely reliable player for most of the time he was with the Browns. The Browns went 10-6 with that offensive line set up. The following year Tucker fell off in his play, had some injuries he battled and unfortunately some personal issues that ultimately would end his career in the NFL. After suffering through some truly terrible play at that position, the Browns made the investment in Mitchell Schwartz to try to address the position in the long term, give the Browns a nice unit that could grow and gel together for several years made up of players that were all still in the early parts of their career. Entering year two for Schwartz, the question is not what are the Browns going to do at the tackle position but how good can this group be?
If any fans ever woke up in the middle of the night screaming John St. Clair’s name in horror, they probably are not alone. The quarterbacks, running backs and coaches that were counting on them likely did too. He was just abysmal at the position that did no favors for anyone expecting him to be functional that never has any business in a starting role. The team could not replace him fast enough.
That upgrade came in the form of Tony Pashos but the tragedy of Pashos is not that he was a bad player, because he was not. He was fantastic early in his career with Baltimore and then when he got a big contract to play in Jacksonville. The problem is that Pashos has been compromised for much of his career due to injuries. By the time he got to the Browns, Pashos was playing on one leg and basically with one shoulder for the most part and just trying to gut it out every week. While Pashos would struggle on the field, the fact was he was absolutely struggling and playing through significant pain just to be mediocre. Pashos famously sent a picture of his foot and ankle covering in staples when he was released in a show of frustration to show fans just how much he was battling through to play. While people can understandably feel for what Pashos was doing for the team just to get out there and fight through it, something he should be praised for doing; it was hard to blame the team either and is one of the unfortunate realities of the sport. The sport does not really reward teams for holding onto players like Pashos with the salary cap and roster restrictions, so while the situation was unfortunate and did not look good for the Browns, they had few options.
Tom Heckert decided enough was enough and used the Browns second round pick on Mitchell Schwartz, the offensive tackle from Cal. Schwartz was a tough, gritty blocker who played left tackle for the Golden Bears with a ton of experience against good competition. Schwartz was not rated as highly by the general public as it was by the Browns, so it was viewed as a reach at the time. While he had a couple bumps early in his rookie season, Schwartz got his bearings for the NFL and moving to the right tackle position quickly and turned in a terrific season.
Thomas is in the prime of his career as he enters his seventh season of the league and he is playing at an incredibly high level. He is either at the top or the second highest rated tackle in the entire NFL and the only spot people will occasionally nitpick Thomas is with his run blocking. Thomas is the prototypical blindside protector but he is not a dominant blocker in the running game. He is good, but not great. So, on one side of the line, the Browns have arguably the best in the business who is on track to have a bust in Canton someday. Now, Schwartz is entering the second of his career and his second season as a right tackle. He has a good knowledge of how the league works and has a great sense of how to play the position. With an offseason to work and improve, he should only get better in his sophomore campaign. The result is the Browns have a fantastic set of bookends. The question is where do they rank league-wide and how good they can get?
It is difficult to argue that the Browns had the best set of tackles in the league last year. No team had a group that was as effective, but they may not get their due nationally because of the struggles of the offense as a whole. The results simply do not suggest the team was that good at that position as their play on tape does. Combine that with the fact that most people consider the Browns an afterthought after a few players like Thomas, (a reputation that has been earned since their return to the league) it is easy to see how they would get overlooked. It is likely going to take a big step forward both offensively and in the standings before Schwartz gets his due.
There are a few teams with situations that could give the Browns a run for their money at this area this coming season and going forward. Minnesota has a terrific group in the making. Their right tackle, Phil Loadholt is an earth mover and one of the reasons that Adrian Peterson has been so incredibly effective the last few years. They took Matt Kalil this past year with the fourth pick of the draft and while he was not quite at the level of Thomas in his rookie season, he was terrific in his own right. As he develops, that group could give the Browns a run for their money. The Denver Broncos have a terrific offensive line in front of Peyton Manning and just locked up their left tackle, Ryan Clady for the next several years. He is not quite the pass protector that Thomas but he is a better run blocker. On the other side, they have Orlando Franklin who has been terrific since he came into the league.
The last team is Jacksonville and this is more about the future, but the present looks bright too. While the Jaguars are rebuilding, they have had a steady performance at left tackle in Eugene Monroe. Much has been made about the pick of Luke Joeckel, but Monroe’s play should not be forgotten or immediately disregarded. However, because they took Joeckel, their tackle play should be fantastic as long as Joeckel is able to hit the ground running. The Jaguars have to make a decision after this year about the future of Monroe, but if they keep him (and they should), they will have a terrific set of tackles going forward.
For all of the frustration and growing pains the Browns have experienced and continue to suffer through, they have a terrific set of tackles that could power them into getting back to being a contender. The Browns still have a ways to go in other areas of the team but the prudent investment at the tackle positions combined with their center, Alex Mack, give the Browns arguably the best, young line in all of football on par with the Baltimore Ravens, San Francisco 49ers, and Denver Broncos. Consistency up front has always been a key in the NFL to long term success along with great play from the quarterback position. The Browns appear to be halfway there with the quarterback, as always, a huge question mark. Progress is progress, but they cannot drop the ball now and need to continue going forward if they are going to be a championship contender.