Dec. 15, 2012; Albuquerque, NM, USA; Nevada Wolf Pack offensive lineman Joel Bitonio (70) and quarterback Cody Fajardo (17) against the Arizona Wildcats in the 2012 New Mexico Bowl at University Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Browns: Joel Bitonio may start at guard, could be answer at tackle

The Cleveland Browns added a great fit for the offense they want to run in Joel Bitonio, the offensive lineman from Nevada.  Bitonio most recently played left tackle for the Wolfpack, but has experience at right tackle and guard.  While the Browns have said he will likely start his career at guard and right guard in particular, it would be a surprise if they did not at least have right tackle in mind, depending on how they feel about Mitchell Schwartz.  Bitonio is really well built for it and is more well designed to do that than he is to play guard.

Bitonio has the athleticism to kick out and track down blockers in the running game.  He also plays with a mean streak and is a finisher, looking to put opponents on the ground when he has the chance to send a message.  Opponents get tired of picking themselves up off of the ground.  Watching him play, he was always looking for someone else he could hit.

There was no question that Bitonio displayed the athleticism to play the tackle position on tape, but he was one of the best performers at the scouting combine athletically, finishing in the top 5 in every category but one.  He finished 4th in the 40 yard dash at 4.97, had the second best vertical jump at 32 inches, the second best broad jump at 9’6″, was third in the 3 cone drill with 7.37, and had the third best 20 yard shuttle with a 4.44.

What that means for Bitonio is that he is impressive with his leg strength and explosion which is what teams want for the running game and a player’s ability to generate power and momentum.  He is also light on his feet and can not only operate in a straight line, but he excels in small area quickness as well, suggesting he has the physical ability to protect the edge as well as respond to quickness inside of him.

The one area where he fell short, relatively, was in the bench press with 22 reps.  Once a player gets into the 20’s, they are usually deemed to have done enough to check that box.  There are also plenty of people, such as LeCharles Bentley and Geoff Schwartz, two of the smarter and more outspoken offensive line aficionados that not only know the position, but also played at a high level in the NFL that think the bench press at the combine is useless as an indicator of anything for linemen.

The reality is that Bitonio has the athleticism to protect the edge on the left side.  Increasingly, the NFL looks at tackles as being able to protect both sides as opposed to having left tackles as opposed to right tackles.  Bitonio can do it.  He will need to showcase that ability in camp, but even if he is getting second team reps at right tackle, he will likely get plenty of opportunities to prove he can do the job.

It would be great if Schwartz can be a great right tackle, but he did need a substantial amount of help last year in the form of tight ends helping him to block.  Part of that was the sieve at right guard inside of him much of the year, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the Browns had reason to be concerned about his long term viability there.  Bitonio at least gives them another option there.

For what Mike Pettine wants to do and what the organization has said they wanted, he is a great fit.  He plays with the toughness and aggressiveness Pettine has been preaching since he got here, but he is a great fit in a zone scheme.  Bitonio is athletic enough to get out block in space, get to the second level and punish the opponent; all things that are important in a zone blocking scheme.  The Nevada offense asked their players to be extremely technical in terms of angles and how he had to position himself to land blocks for the types of options they ran.

For the Browns, Joel Bitonio is a player where talent meets value and fit.  Bitonio could have gone in the first round and I graded him as a top 50 pick.  He was someone I looked at as a great fit for the Browns at the 35th pick when it came to fit for the scheme and the culture, both on the team and within the region.  Evidently, Ray Farmer and Coach Pettine felt the same way when they turned in the card.

More than just on the field, Bitonio is a great fit off the field and in the locker room as well.  For a great look into just how tough and dedicated Bitonio is to playing the game, here is an interview I did with him before the NFL Draft.  There is a lot of good information in there, but here is an exchange that jumps out at me:

PS: What do you attribute your mindset with run blocking?

JB: So my father passed away when I was a redshirt freshman, so going into that year we were 13-1, that fall camp, he actually died of a heart attack.  And I mean, it was the most emotional, unbelievable roller coaster of my life.  It was just unreal; you never think it’s going to happen to you.  All the clichés, you know what I mean.  You really feel that way.

So when I got back, I took a week off from fall camp for the funeral and stuff, I got angry, you know, I was like, man, why did this happen to me?  I kinda started playing angry then and I don’t have to play angry anymore, but after doing it for a few weeks or a few months or a year, it just comes a lot more naturally now, so now, that’s all I know.

You play to the whistle.  You try to finish your guy every play.  Your goal on each play is to win, like you can’t let your man make a play.  And if all eleven guys are doing that, it will be a successful play.  I just think I attribute that to going through some hard stuff and kinda using it as motivation out there.  But now, it comes a lot more naturally.  I don’t have to think about finishing.   It just kinda happens when I’m out on the field.

PS: What was it like going through that 18-month process of going from lightly recruited to going to college to contributing to that huge season; all of the heartache combined with success in that time?

JB: So the first year, I was probably like every college freshman; just big eyed, like man, this is unbelievable how this machine works, you know, college football and stuff.  I redshirted my first year. I knew I was going to redshirt most likely coming in.  So I took advantage of that, you know, I was in the weight room all the time just trying to get bigger, trying to get faster, but I traveled with the team that year as well, because one of our OLinemen got suspended and they needed an extra body for warm-ups and stuff with the team.  So, I was traveling with the team.  I got to experience a lot of that and I’m like man, I don’t want to stand on the sidelines.  I want to help this team win any way I can and stuff like that, so you’re going through that.

I thought going into fall camp, I thought, I mean I was fighting for a starting spot.  And I thought, you know, I was ready and stuff and then my father passed away.  So, football was set on the backburner obviously for a couple weeks, but me and my mom just talked and we were like, you know he’d want you to be playing right now and I was just like, I know, I know, I’m gonna go back and I went back and I started playing harder and stuff.

It also sets you back, you know, you miss a week and a half of fall camp.  That’s a lot of time, so it took me a while to contribute the way I wanted to contribute and start from week one.  But I contributed on punt, field goal, you know, the main backup; I played all four positions that year.  And I was trying to go through it; it was very emotional, every game from the first game of the year.  It was like man, he would have been here watching or when we won the championship, no one would have been prouder and a bigger fan than my father.  It was exciting because we were playing now, but it was emotional the entire time; just a roller coaster of emotions that entire year.  It was definitely the toughest year of my life, but once we succeeded and did well, I knew I could accomplish anything and it’s making me a better person today.

I was a big fan of Bitonio’s based on the tape I had watched.  After getting to speak with him, it only made me a bigger fan of what he could do for this team and how much the fan base could get behind the type of player he is and wants to be.  He has dealt with a large amount of difficulty and grief at a time when it would have been easy to shut down.  No one would have blamed him if he did.  Instead, he found a way to channel it into something great, both for himself, his family, and the memory of his father.  And while his father was not able to see his son drafted, there is no doubt that his dad can look down and be incredibly proud of his son.  It should not take long for Browns fans to have a similar feeling of pride with what Bitonio can do for their team.  On a personal level, I am more excited about getting to follow Joel’s career in Cleveland than any other pick the Browns made this year.

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