Joe Thomas: The Browns' best selection of the past decade.
“Linemen are literally the unsung heroes of the game. Their situation is analogous to the infantry in warfare. They do the hard, bitter fighting for victory. As the generals reap the headlines in war, the backs reap the headlines in football. Yet in their hearts, the generals and backs know that victory and the accolades came to them through the work of the footsoldiers and linemen.”- Gomer Jones
Reconstructing the Cleveland Browns from the ash-heap of the post-Braylon/K2/Romeo apocalypse always figured to be a two- to three-year process. That process was delayed another two seasons as Eric Mangini imported recycled mediocre veterans from the Jets, depriving the younger homegrown talent from valuable opportunities.
The Browns' relative conservatism with respect to free agency perhaps demonstrates the lessons learned between 1999 and 2012—draft, draft, draft.
When the Browns parted ways with Tony Pashos, the right tackle position became vacant as it does almost annually. Whether Pashos, John St. Clair or Kevin Shaffer, the Browns simply have never enjoyed the consistent services of a quality right tackle, and always seem to be settling for free agency table scraps to serve as one- or two-year stop gaps.
A right tackle's primary role is to dominate the point of attack in the rushing game. The AFC North very often goes to one of the NFL's top rushing teams. Surprise: the Browns have never won the AFC North.
For the 2012 NFL Draft, the Browns would do well to consider a permanent solution at right tackle.
You can follow me on Twitter @StepanekButton
Undrafted perennial Pro Bowler Jason Peters: the one consistent anomaly.
At offensive line, Pro Bowl appearances often prove a difficult success metric, because for the offensive line so much depends exclusively on name recognition, and right tackle in specific gets neglected as nearly all left tackles attend.
Yet perennial Pro Bowler-ship typically excludes the unworthy. Of the current four current perennial Pro Bowl tackles in the NFL, three were drafted in the top 10 overall while the other, Philadelphia's Jason Peters, signed with Buffalo undrafted.
The Browns will miss out on a long-term responsibility if they fail to acquire a reliable, quality full-time starter at right tackle. In 2010, 3 undrafted free agents made the Pro Bowl at tackle, but other than that, only Peters consistently makes the Pro Bowl.
Additionally, for those wondering if left tackles should be taken in the first round and right tackles waited on: in 2011 three right tackles came off the board in the mid-late first round- Tyron Smith to Dallas, Nate Solder to New England and Gabe Carimi to Chicago. Those organizations will likely judge those picks by the rushing yards behind them and the sacks they don't give up, rather than their individual hardware.
As opposed to simply looking for a serviceable starter as they've done, the Browns should try to find a Pro Bowl-quality player. Consider how few Pro Bowl tackles emerge outside first- or second-round draft picks:
Draft Placement: Pro Bowl Offensive Tackles, 2006-2011
Average Draft Position: 1st round, 19.75th overall
The Pack drafted Bryan Bulaga 23rd overall in 2010.
The Browns made their most provident selection in recent years when they selected Joe Thomas third overall in 2007, but within a matter of hours committed one of their worst draft-day miscues when they traded with the Dallas Cowboys for an additional first round pick to acquire Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn.
This season, the Browns enter a similar scenario with some slight adjustments: in addition to the fourth pick overall, they already own the No. 22 pick from the Atlanta Falcons, and the Minnesota Vikings will almost certainly select USC's Matt Kalil, the best tackle in the draft, with the third-overall pick.
At fourth, a selection like Trent Richardson or Justin Blackmon would excite the fan base and provide some much needed quality at the skill positions.
But at 22nd and or 37th, the Browns would be monumentally foolish to ignore their blatant need at right tackle.
The Texans' O-Line facilitated nearly 2,500 rushing yards.
The Houston Texans selected the 6'7", 302-pound Eric Winston in the third round in 2006. Five years later, in 2011, Winston served at the point of attack in an offense which ate up nearly 2,500 yards on the ground. Over the course of the season, star players Arian Foster, Mario Williams, Andre Johnson and Matt Schaub fell to injury at various points.
The loss of individual players, even the starting quarterback, failed to derail a team which finished second in rushing and fourth in overall defense.
Despite never gracing a Pro Bowl roster (an honor usually exclusively afforded to left tackles), Winston earned a commitment from the Texans in 2009, when they restructured his contract to $30 million over five years. Winston chose to forgo the last two years in that contract to sign for four years and $22 million with Kansas City.
This is a putrid portent for Browns fans, as Peyton Hillis will enjoy a premier run blocker in KC.
The message? Like we said, Pro Bowls and high draft selections don't necessarily denote quality, but a good right tackle means a good running game. If you can run the ball and play defense as a team, you can overcome any injury.
No coincidence: Jamal Lewis' 1,300+ yards and the Browns' 10-6 record in 2007.
As we've discussed in previous pleas for the Browns to focus on establishing a dominant run game, the Ravens and Steelers habitually rate in the top 10 in the NFL in time of possession. Unsurprisingly, the Steelers and Ravens historically feature dominant, team-oriented rushing attacks and stifling run defenses. Also not shockingly, the Steelers and Ravens rarely finish below .500, and almost always win the division or qualify for the wild card.
Despite the attractiveness of finding the next A.J. Green or the uptick in pass attempts last season in Pittsburgh, winning AFC North teams typically complement a physical running game with an efficient, disciplined approach to passing. The Browns would do well to be cognizant of that trend as they approach draft day.
The Browns must build to beat their opponents.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have finished first or second in total defense in four of the last five years. Four of those five, the Baltimore Ravens have finished third, and even the Cincinnati Bengals finished in the top ten in two of those five years.
If the Browns' rivals averaged 40+ points a game, I would write about the urgent need for big-play receivers and shutdown corners. Within the realm of the AFC North, those can certainly help, but the name of the game remains smash-mouth, run-oriented football.
Emulating a style of play reminiscent of the Houston Texans' relentless, physically devastating rushing attack can help the Browns wear down even the grizzliest of opponents.
Jeff Faine has started every game he's played in.
Of each first round pick the Cleveland Browns used from 1999-2011, only Jeff Faine and Gerard Warren managed to play over 100 NFL games as of 2012, and none have played 100+ games in a Browns uniform. Joe Thomas will cross that mark by 2013, but the reality is that the Browns have failed to select serviceable professionals, let alone Pro Bowlers, in the first round.
The only position where the Browns have never seriously busted in the first round is at offensive line. In 2003, the Browns selected center Jeff Faine out of Notre Dame with the 21st pick. While Faine certainly never developed into the Pro Bowler you hope to lock down when you invest a first-round pick in a center, he's played as the starting center for his various teams for nearly a decade.
This demonstrates that even if the Browns select a lineman who fails to meet high expectations, they (more likely than not) will still come away with a serviceable pro.
Iowa's Riley Reiff: a protege for Joe Thomas?
The Browns' timed their right tackle search well, as the 2012 draft class features several promising run blockers. Additionally, left tackle Joe Thomas committed to the Browns for the foreseeable future when he signed an eight-year, $92 million contract. Who better than the five-time Pro Bowler Thomas to mentor a highly-drafted rookie tackle?
Note: nearly every one of these players will likely fall farther than the pick at which they are listed, but the following players could be options for the Browns:
Riley Reiff, Iowa
Jonathan Martin, Stanford
Cordy Glenn, Georgia
Bobby Massie, Ole Miss
Mike Adams, Ohio State
Zebrie Sanders, Florida State
Kelechi Osemele, Iowa State