PFF’s offensive line ranking spot on for the Browns

Jan 1, 2017; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Cleveland Browns running back Isaiah Crowell (34) rushes the ball against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the fourth quarter at Heinz Field. The Steelers won 27-24 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 1, 2017; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Cleveland Browns running back Isaiah Crowell (34) rushes the ball against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the fourth quarter at Heinz Field. The Steelers won 27-24 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

The Cleveland Browns offensive line was ranked 16th overall by Pro Football Focus. The ranking does justice to all the issues the line faced in 2016.

The Cleveland Browns offensive line was ranked 16th by Pro Football Focus for the 2016 season. Such a high ranking may come as a shock to fans who witnessed multiple quarterback injuries and an obscene amount of sacks this past season.

However, the ranking from the analytics-driven site and the reasons for those rankings were correct.

The Browns performed a major overhaul on their offensive line prior to the 2016 season. Allowed to walk in free agency were Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz. Both players were highly touted and both were recently named second team All-Pro by the NFL. They left for teams in which their skill sets would be maximized and the move has worked out for them.

The Browns made the move to transition the offensive line away from the zone run/vertical pass monstrosity conceived by former offensive coordinator John DeFilippo and ex-head coach Mike Pettine. In its place head coach Hue Jackson installed a power-run/quick-passing offense.

The new offense required a different skill set of the players on the offensive line and, unfortunately, Mack and Schwartz did not fit that new scheme.

The Browns sought to fill the holes in the offensive line with players more appropriate to the scheme.  Cameron Erving, who had been drafted 19th overall in the 2015 NFL Draft, the was slotted to play center. The Browns drafted Spencer Drango and Shon Coleman in 2016 as run blocking linemen who would have to be taught to play in the NFL. Alvin Bailey was brought in to fill the need at right tackle.

Before training camp, Pro Football Focus ranked every offensive line. At that time, the Browns were ranked 21st in the league, given the losses of Mack and Schwartz combined with the uncertainty of their replacements.

Here is what Pro Football Focus had to say prior to the season about the Browns offensive line:

"The Browns used to have one of the best offensive line’s in football as recently as early 2015, but free agency has forced the unit to take a step back. Mitchell Schwartz signed with the Chiefs, and Alex Mack is now suiting up for the Falcons. Joel Bitonio had a great rookie year that he just couldn’t replicate in 2015, while John Greco also produced his worst season of the PFF era (since 2007). While both guards can rebound and Cameron Erving could have a strong sophomore season, at the very least, they still have Joe Thomas."

At that time, this writer objected that Pro Football Focus’ rankings failed to account for scheme differences and that the Browns would be ranked higher by the end of the season.

Then a funny thing happened – the season started. The Browns offensive line was built to run the football, which it did successfully. The Browns run game hit a 50-year high with a 4.89 yards per attempt, which ranked second overall in the league.

More from Dawg Pound Daily

However, the pass protection was spotty. The reasons for poor pass protection were many,  including that endless rotation of quarterbacks. The quarterbacks that did play often did not throw the ball on time, and would leave the pocket exposing them to sacks and unnecessary hits.

Beyond poor quarterback play was the play of Erving and right tackle Austin Pasztor.

Pasztor struggled all season against athletic defensive linemen who could convert speed to power. Initially he struggled with his sets and initial punch as he was transitioning from guard to tackle to start the season. He did figure out his technique and played well toward the end of the season.

However, it was clear by then that Pasztor was not a longterm solution at tackle and was transitioned back to guard for the final game.

Erving is another story.

He struggled with basic skills like snaps, initial positioning and holding the pocket at the line of scrimmage. He was unable to overcome these difficulties as the season wore on. In addition, he also struggled with the mental aspects of the game, such as calling protections and changing blocking schemes. The quarterbacks took over these responsibilities, which further exacerbated the issue when those quarterbacks got hurt.

By the end of the season, the Browns saw the writing on the wall and moved Erving to right tackle. His one game at tackle was promising enough to merit another look next training camp.

To the credit of Pro Football Focus, they gave an accurate accounting of how the season went for the Browns offensive line. Here is what Pro Football Focus has to say in their post-season ranking:

"No offensive line had to deal with as much in terms of the QBs they were blocking for than the Browns, who had rolled through six different passers in seven weeks to begin the season—none of whom demonstrated the kind of playing style that actually makes things easier on his linemen. Despite that, Joe Thomas had another excellent season at LT, and the guard pairing of Joel Bitonio and John Greco also played well. The issue on this line was Cameron Erving, the former first-round pick, playing center in his second season, having struggled massively at guard and tackle as a rookie. He was little, if any, better in the middle, surrendering 30 total QB pressures and being routinely abused as a run blocker. It’s difficult to see much of a future for Erving at this point, and his position is one in need of upgrade."

Moving forward the Browns need to identify a center, which maybe on the roster with Austin Reiter or Anthony Fabiano. Regardless, the Browns need to draft a natural center in the draft between the third and fifth rounds.

Unlike the beginning of the season, Pro Football Focus correctly identified the strengths and weaknesses of the Browns offensive line in their post-season analysis. Further, the Browns troubles as an offensive line would be greatly helped by drafting a quarterback who can adequately play within the pocket.

Next: Browns roster analysis: The QBs

Next year the Browns offensive line could be significantly improved. Identifying a longterm solution at right tackle (who may already be on the roster) should be an off-season priority. The biggest need facing the offensive line (outside of the need for a pocket quarterback) is center. Identifying a longterm solution at center should be the main focus for improving the offensive line this draft season.