Can Bill Callahan develop Cleveland Browns offensive linemen

CLEVELAND, OHIO - AUGUST 29: Offensive guard Austin Corbett #63 of the Cleveland Browns during the second half of a preseason game against the Detroit Lions at FirstEnergy Stadium on August 29, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Browns defeated the Lions 20-16. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OHIO - AUGUST 29: Offensive guard Austin Corbett #63 of the Cleveland Browns during the second half of a preseason game against the Detroit Lions at FirstEnergy Stadium on August 29, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Browns defeated the Lions 20-16. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

The addition of Bill Callahan to the Cleveland Browns coaching staff would be a major step forward in developing the team’s offensive line

The addition of Bill Callahan to the coaching staff of the Cleveland Browns, assuming it goes forward as planned, could be a major step forward to develop Cleveland players on the offensive line. Consider that no offensive lineman has developed into anything resembling a successful NFL player since Joel Bitonio was drafted in 2014.

Meantime the team could not re-sign Alex Mack and did not re-sign Mitchell Schwartz. Since leaving Cleveland, Mack has been on three Pro Bowl teams, and Schwartz made All-Pro in 2018. It would be fair to say that both players enhanced their careers after leaving the Browns.

The Browns have invested heavily via the draft in offensive linemen and have come up empty since Bitonio. They have drafted Cameron Erving (first round), Shon Coleman (third), Spencer Drango (fifth), Roderick Johnson (fifth), Austin Corbett (second) and Drew Forbes (fifth). They also signed Austin Reiter from Washington’s practice squad.

Four players who were let go by the Browns have found their way to other NFL teams. Johnson (three starts), Corbett (seven starts), Erving (eight starts), and Reiter (16 starts)  all played for other teams in 2019. The two free-agent departures (Mack and Schwartz) also played in all 16 games.

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The development — or lack thereof — with Austin Corbett is particularly vexing. He was a smallish tackle out of Nevada, drafted first in the second round in the 2018 NFL draft. Most scouts thought would be a guard in the NFL. Instead, the Browns asked him to replace Joe Thomas at left tackle.

That didn’t work out, so became a backup for Joel Bitonio, which of course is a dead-end job. Then they gave him a shot at right guard in 2019 but chose Eric Kush over him. He was then converted to backup center signifying that the Browns had given up on him and that he would become a utility player. There he sat until the Rams traded a draft pick for him. In Week 10 he got his shot and then started seven straight games with zero missed snaps.

Corbett was not a superstar. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he graded only 66th highest at his position — but he was ten spots higher than the veteran Kush. How could this be, if he was supposedly so untalented for the Browns?

The Browns had almost exactly the same problem with Cameron Erving, who flopped at all five offensive line positions but who has started 25 games at Kansas City. Roderick Johnson played in a platoon system at right tackle for the Houston Texans after being dismissed by the Browns. His PFF grade is very close to that of Greg Robinson.  Johnson gets paid about 10 percent of Robinson’s salary, incidentally.

Austin Reiter turned in a strong performance for Kansas City as their starting center. He is probably the most impressive Cleveland reject. Reiter was picked by the Browns from Washington’s practice squad and his NFL debut was for the Browns. In 2019 he started all 16 games for Kansas City.

The two players who left as free agents, Mack and Schwartz, both played in all 16 games this year.

That’s 66 starts for six ex-Browns playing for other teams. Moreover, all six clearly elevated their game after leaving the Browns.

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Conversely, the Browns have done well with signing free agents such as Kevin Zeitler, and J. C. Tretter, although more recently Chris Hubbard has not fulfilled expectations as a tackle. No drafted player has had success since Joel Bitonio.

This is probably a coaching and development problem. Even though there have been several sets of coaches in recent years, somehow things have not worked right on the offensive line. The scouting could have been better, but the fact that linemen seem to improve after leaving strongly suggests the team has had systematic coaching and training issues. Young Browns linemen are not strong enough or fast enough or even big enough to handle themselves in today’s NFL.

That is the part that Bill Callahan has a chance to help with. He has developed countless young linemen over the years.

This ain’t Callahan’s first rodeo. He is a former head coach in both the NFL as well as major conference college football. He’s very well respected around the league and knows offensive line play as well as anyone.

He’s been at this since 1980 in the college ranks and first made the NFL in 1995 as an offensive line coach for Philadelphia. He went to Oakland in 1998 and eventually became Jon Gruden’s offensive coordinator and finally head coach, taking the Raiders to the Super Bowl only to lose to Gruden’s new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Pro Bowl linemen he has coached include Barrett Robbins, Lincoln Kennedy, Steve WisniewskiNick MangoldAlan Faneca, D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Tyron SmithZack Martin, and Travis Frederick. Maybe some of that will rub off on the Browns young linemen, especially if new players are brought in, either via the draft, trade or free-agent signings.

The Browns need to stop being a farm team for the rest of the NFL. Tackle is a particular concern because Greg Robinson may not be re-signed, and Chris Hubbard may be cut to save salary cap space. On the other hand, one or the other might be given a chance to complete with Wyatt Teller and Drew Forbes for the starting right guard position.

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In any case, very likely at least one or two new linemen will be brought in via the NFL draft or via free agency. It will be interesting to see how this coaching staff responds.