The Cleveland Browns struggled along the offensive line in 2016 and a return to health from guard Joel Bitonio will help settle things down.
The Cleveland Browns had their issues along the offensive line in 2016.
The line gave up a league-high 66 sacks (although that had as much to do with former quarterbacks Robert Griffin III and Josh McCown as it did the blocking), starting guards Joel Bitonio and John Greco were lost for the season with Lisfranc injuries, Austin Pasztor struggled while playing out of position at right tackle, and Cameron Erving displayed on a weekly basis that he is not an NFL center.
The Browns solved part of the problem by signing center JC Tretter and guard Kevin Zeitler in free agency, and have moved Erving to right tackle, where he will compete for the starter’s role with second-year player Shon Coleman.
Now all the team needs is for Bitonio to return to health, which he hopes to be in time for the start of training game, according to clevelandbrowns.com:
"“They let me run around a little bit and just be out there and warm up and go through individual and sweat a little bit with the team and stuff like that. It was awesome to be out there. I felt really good and strong. We are getting there. It is hard to say exactly, but I feel really good. They are obviously letting me do some stuff so it is a good step. We are still five-six weeks away from camp so I think we are moving in the right direction.”"
Even though he only played five games last season before being injured, and not all the problems were attributable to the line, Bitonio accepts that the line has to play better for the Browns to have any success this fall, he told the team’s website:
"“Last year, we obviously weren’t good enough on the offensive line as a whole. We had injuries; we had young guys — there was no excuse. It was just kind of a collection of things, but if we can come together and produce the way we want to produce, I think it could lead to the ability to run the ball and take shots when you need to. If you have the ability to run the ball, it just opens up the whole offense, and I think that is our goal from the start is to be able to run the ball and then when we need to and take our shots and convert on third down."
"“It really does, the offense starts up front. If you have time to throw the ball, people are going to get open. You can’t cover guys for more than three seconds in this league. It is hard. If we can come together and really be the physical unit we can, I think it will really open up the offense.”"
As much as the addition of Tretter and Zeitler will benefit the line, having Bitonio healthy for a full season is just as important. He has Pro Bowl talent, but has only played 15 total games after suffering a season-ending injury in each of the past two seasons. If Bitonio were to go down again this year, then suddenly the Browns are faced with having to once again plug a hole at an important position. (Although keeping veteran John Greco on the roster as a backup guard is not a horrible plan.)
The Browns obviously feel the same way after agreeing to a contract extension with Bitonio during the offseason that reportedly includes $23 million in guaranteed money.
The best way for Bitonio to repay the team is to suit up for all 16 games this fall.