Aug 23, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns offensive tackle Joel Bitonio (75) against St. Louis Rams defensive end Eugene Sims (97) during the first quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ron Schwane-USA TODAY Sports
Cleveland Browns general manager Ray Farmer has received more than his share of criticism for the way the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft played out for the team.
Some of the criticism is warranted, as Johnny Manziel feels the heat of a national spotlight that seems to burn brighter every day, while fellow first-round pick Justin Gilbert works quietly in the shadows in an attempt to jumpstart his NFL career after a rough rookie season.
With everyone focusing on what Manziel and Gilbert did not do during their first year with the Browns, it has been easy to overlook that the rest of the draft was a pretty positive one for the club, with all six players selected seeing playing time. (And that doesn’t include the contribution from undrafted free agent Isaiah Crowell.)
The best of the group may turn out to be Joel Bitonio, the second-year guard out of Nevada who played every snap of his rookie season. (Which, now that we’ve pointed that out, means we’ve doomed him.)
“I had to come in ready to play. I couldn’t mess around from the get go. For me, that was my mindset and that’s how I got over the hump.” – Joel Bitonio, Browns guard
Bionio walked into the perfect situation for an offensive guard, lining up between the game’s best left tackle in Joe Thomas and the AFC’s best center in Alex Mack. But while that scenario helped Bitonio get acclimated to life in the NFL, he showed that he could hold his own as his play didn’t drop off once Mack went down with a season-ending injury.
Bitonio was so impressive during his rookie season that he was named to the Top 101 of 2014 list at Pro Football Focus, coming in at No. 67. According to the site, Bitonio:
"“didn’t take long to show how NFL ready he was, with only a couple of negatively graded games in the latter weeks of the season preventing him finishing higher. The second-round pick was a boon to an already strong offensive line, fitting in seamlessly with his stellar run blocking catching the eye in particular.”"
The site, which also named Bitonio as the second-best guard in all the NFL (let that sink in for a moment), targeted the Week 5 comeback victory against Tennessee as Bitonio’s best performance of the season, grading him at +4.3, and noted that Bitonio was the only offensive guard to score a +10.0 or higher grade for his pass protection and run blocking.
More from Dawg Pound Daily
- 3 Cleveland Browns players who don’t deserve another season in 2023
- How the Browns could maximize Nick Chubb in 2023
- Can Deshaun Watson get to Patrick Mahomes level for Cleveland Browns?
- 3 Cleveland Browns who should see an expanded role in 2023 and 1 who should not
- Is Marcus Davenport on the Browns radar in 2023?
Now, as he prepares for his second season along the Browns offensive line, Bitonio is once again gaining recognition. This time, Pete Prisco at CBSSports.com, who named Bitonio as one of his 20 breakout players for 2015, writing that Bitonio:
"didn’t get as much attention a some other rookie guards last season, but this mauler never backed down from anybody. He is a fighter. He made a nice transition from college tackle inside to guard for the Browns."
With Mack’s return from injury, Thomas still being Thomas, and rookie Cameron Erving pushing incumbents John Greco and Mitchell Schwartz on the right side, the Browns should once again have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.
And if Bitonio makes the jump and truly becomes a “breakout player” in 2015, the offensive line might be in contention for the NFL’s best.
Which is a scenario that will certainly please head coach Mike Pettine and starting quarterback Josh McCown.
Can the Browns offensive line be good enough to make the quarterback position an asset?