Browns offensive line: Stay or go in 2018?
By Thomas Moore
The Cleveland Browns have several roster decisions to make for 2018, with left tackle possibly being an important one.
The Cleveland Browns are currently working their way through another one of their “most important off seasons ever” as the franchise undergoes its latest rebuilding project.
But unlike their past attempts to turn themselves into an actual NFL franchise, this rebuild is taking on a different look and feel.
Executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown did a considerable amount of work before he was fired late in the 2017 season, and because of that general manager John Dorsey has a solid foundation to build on.
In addition to sound offensive and defensive lines, along with young, promising players at tight end, linebacker and in the secondary, Dorsey has somewhere north of $100 million in cap space at his disposal, along with 12 selections in the 2018 NFL Draft – including picks No. 1 and No. 4 in the first round, plus another three selections in the second round.
Dorsey needs to hold onto some of that cap space to start resigning players nearing the end of their rookie deals, running back Duke Johnson comes to mind, but the cap dollars, draft picks and unwritten NFL rule that a new general manager needs “his players” to make things work means that the roster will undergo changes between now and Week 1 of the regular season in September.
To that end, let’s take a look at the offensive linemen on the roster to determine who will likely still be in Orange and Brown come the fall, and who will be seeking employment elsewhere.
Current offensive linemen
Starters: Joe Thomas, Joel Bitonio, JC Tretter, Kevin Zeitler, Shon Coleman
Backups: Zach Banner, Chris Barker, Joseph Cheek, Spencer Drango, Geoff Gray, Rod Johnson, Marcus Martin, Austin Reiter, Victor Salako
Thomas, Banner, Gray, Cheek and Salako are all signed through 2018; Coleman, Drango and Tretter are signed through 2019; Zeitler is signed through 2012; Bitonio is signed through 2022 (via spotrac.com)
Stay or Go?
The discussion about the offensive line begins and ends with left tackle Joe Thomas, who went down with a season-ending injury in October.
If Thomas returns for the 2018 season, the offensive line is set. If he retires, then the Browns have a problem.
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The team will welcome Thomas back, but even if he does return the perennial Pro Bowler is basically a year-to-year player at this stage of his career. No matter what his decision is, and Thomas will reportedly let the Browns know before the start of free agency, the team should start working on his replacement in this year’s NFL Draft.
The interior positions are set as left guard Bitonio was able to make it through a full season for the first time since his rookie year and continues to play at a high level. Tretter solidified the center position after joining the Browns in free agency, and Zeitler did the same at right guard.
As for right tackle, Coleman did his best to hold down the position and should be commended for starting all 16 games after missing almost all of his rookie season with a knee injury.
When it comes to the backups, Drango took over for Thomas following his injury and, like Coleman, did the best that he could. In the end, however, Drango confirmed on a weekly basis that his future role in the league is as a backup guard.
Playing time was limited for every other lineman on the roster as all the starters, save for Thomas, made all 16 starts during the season.
Looking ahead to the fall, Bitonio, Tretter and Zeitler are locked in as the starters, and Thomas will be as well if he returns.
After that, however, things are a little less clear.
It wouldn’t be surprise if the Browns looked to upgrade the right tackle position. Coleman and Drango have roles on the team, they just made not be as starters – especially in the case of Drango.
Of the other backups, Reiter looks to be a valuable safety net at center, and Banner should continue to get a look simply because of his size (6-foot-8 and 360 pounds). Johnson may have a harder time sticking, however, as he struggled in training camp before injuring his knee and missing the season. He also was not selected by the current front office, which is always a strike against marginal players.
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Everyone else is essentially a camp body.
The Browns have a solid offensive line, especially if Thomas decides he is not ready to start his broadcasting career full time. But even if he does decide to play at least one more year, the Browns should start looking for his replacement, as well as possibly a tackle on the right side, sooner rather than later.