Cleveland Browns: Offensive line cuts will hurt

(Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
(Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images) /

The Cleveland Browns’ offensive line was a major question mark after last season. The offseason improvements will lead to hard cuts this week.

After their performance in 2016, the Cleveland Browns offensive line has taken on a lot of scrutiny. Right or wrong, fans and media alike looked to the offensive line as the reason the Browns surrendered 66 sacks last season.

To address the issues at center and right guard, the Browns aggressively pursued and landed Kevin Zeitler, the top-rated guard in free agency, as well as J.C. Tretter, who was highly regarded by Pro Football Focus for his time with the Green Bay Packers.

Both players have performed well this preseason. Tretter has shown his athleticism by pulling around the end on zone plays and holding up in pass protection. Zeitler had a shaky game against the New York Giants, but erased all concerns with his performance against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

These additions have stabilized the middle of the offensive line, which sorely needed help. But with additions always come subtractions. The Browns added depth means some very difficult decisions need to be made as the deadline to reduce rosters to 53 players arrives on Saturday at 4 p.m.

The decision at tackle seems to be a little less difficult. Joe Thomas is a lock at left tackle. Backing up Thomas should be Roderick Johnson, whose play has steadily gotten better during the preseason. Right tackle will be held down by Shon Coleman.

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The one question at tackle is what to do with Cameron Erving, who is in his third year of a standard contract for first-round picks. He has one year remaining on his contract with an option year that must be picked up after the 2017 season. A decision on Erving is imminent. The Browns could trade him. They could keep him as added depth.  Or they could release him with guaranteed money still on his contract.

According to media reports, the Browns are looking at the first option:

The cuts at guard will be hard. Joel Bitonio’s injury history will leave the team wanting to keep a veteran backup on the roster. This fact alone should keep John Greco on the roster. His versatility to play guard and center is an added boon to his candidacy.

Anthony Fabiano and Spencer Drango are also candidates to make the team at guard. Fabiano is an undrafted player out of Harvard who scored very high on SPARQ. He has played both guard and center this preseason. His versatility will help him as well. Drango, a fifth-round selection in 2016,  has exclusively played guard. His play has improved this preseason, and if he is cut he will be picked up by another team needing offensive line help.

Not everyone can be kept at guard. Fabiano may be snuck onto the practice squad, but the question of backup center may work in his favor.

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Center will be held down by Tretter. But his injury history should scare the Browns enough to keep a veteran backup center, with Greco being the logical choice. Erving’s play last year should scare the Browns away from using him at center except in extreme emergencies.

This leaves Austin Reiter, last year’s one-game wonder, and Fabiano. The edge in this battle has swung in favor of Fabiano the past two weeks. Fabiano has played with the second team and looked solid. Reiter has consistently played with the third team and looked solid as well. Fabiano’s versatility and athleticism may keep him on the roster.

Depending on how many offensive linemen the Browns keep, roster cuts could hurt.

If the Browns keep eight offensive linemen, as would be typical of a team, hard decisions will have to be made. Can the Browns keep four tackles? How many interior backups are necessary given the injury history of starters at those positions?

In the end, the Browns will need to decide between Johnson, who has outplayed Erving, as a swing tackle or Erving, the veteran with game experience and guaranteed money on his contract.

Another decision will be how to best backup the interior. A backup who can play center and guard is a must. Do they keep the veteran Greco or go with unproven Fabiano? Or do they keep both, effectively cutting Reiter and Drango?

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With roster decisions looming, the final preseason game will be the last chance for these players to make their case. It will be an exciting game to watch.