Projected Starters: LT Joe Thomas, LG Jason Pinkston, C Alex Mack, RG Shawn Lauvao, RT Mitchell Schwartz (second-round pick)
Assessment: The Browns felt they needed to address the right side of the offensive line especially in the offseason, and Heckert has said time and time again that the team will build through the draft rather than splurge in free agency.
With the 37th pick, everyone expected the Browns to grab a playmaking wide receiver—one of the most glaring needs for the team from the previous season. Instead, they decided to nab the perceivable replacement for Tony Pashos by drafting the University of California prospect Schwartz. It should be an upgrade to the position since Pashos struggled mightily last season due to battling through significant injury.
Joe Thomas has proven he is among the best left tackles in the league, and Alex Mack is a two-time Pro Bowler. Pinkston, a fifth-round selection in last year's draft at right tackle, did a decent job filling in for former All-Pro Eric Steinbach, who was sidelined for all of 2011 with a ruptured disk in his back.
Lavao was a third-round investment, but hasn't blown anyone in the organization away with his play. Fifth-round selection Ryan Miller out of the University of Colorado should challenge Lavao for a starting job at right guard in training camp due to his athleticism and exceptional run blocking. The huge 6'7" Miller only weighs in at 321 lbs, and the agility he displays could be vital to the Browns' rushing attack.
Here's how I'd rank the offensive lines of the AFCN teams, with points being awarded to each team based on where their starters rank:
1. Thomas 2. Andrew Whitworth (CIN) 3. Marcus Gilbert (PIT) 4. Bryant McKinnie (BAL)
Whitworth has been a rock for years for Cincinnati, while Gilbert was the Steelers' 2011 Rookie of the Year after starting 13 games, allowing the older Willie Colon to move inside to left guard this coming season. McKinnie failed to get in shape in time for the season last year, being released by the Vikings. He filled in admirably for the Ravens, but questions must be raised about his work ethic and consistency moving forward.
1. Travelle Wharton (CIN) 2. Willie Colon (PIT) 3. Pinkston 4. Baltimore Ravens*
* According to Matt Bensel of the Baltimore Sun, as many as four players are competing for the starting position.
Wharton started 99 games for the Carolina Panthers over the previous eight seasons, and started every game last season for an explosive offense spearheaded by rookie phenom Cam Newton. Colon is a solid player but is transitioning, albeit favorably, to a new position. Pinkston should improve with a whole offseason under his belt and being settled at left guard.
1. Maurkice Pouncey (PIT) 2. Mack 3. Matt Birk (BAL) 4. Kyle Cook (CIN)
Pouncey has proven he was worth every bit of the 18th overall pick the Steelers invested in him in 2010. Mack had a bit of a down year last season and seemed to lack the chemistry with Pinkston that made the Thomas-Steinbach-Mack trio so effective on the Browns' left side in previous years. Birk is a future Hall-of-Famer; he isn't getting any younger, but is still a valuable veteran presence to the younger Joe Flacco.
1. Marshal Yanda (BAL) 2. David DeCastro (PIT) 3. Kevin Zeitler (CIN) 4. Lauvao
Yanda made the Pro Bowl last season, and DeCastro is considered by ESPN's Mel Kiper as, "the best guard prospect since Steve Hutchinson." Zeitler was selected in 2012 three picks after DeCastro in the first round.
1. Michael Oher (BAL) 2. Andre Smith (CIN) 3. Schwartz 4. Mike Adams (PIT)
Oher has looked more comfortable since sliding over to right tackle, perhaps due to not having to shoulder the burden of protecting the blind side. Andre Smith is blossoming into the player the Bengals hoped he would be when they drafted him two years ago. Schwartz should start on day one for the Browns, and Mike Adams has had character concerns coming out of Ohio State.
Aggregate score (4 pts for #1, 3 pts for #2, etc):
Pittsburgh & Cincinnati: 13
Cleveland & Baltimore: 12
The difference between the Browns and Ravens is that the Ravens can score, and until the Browns prove their unit can work in harmony with its skill players to put more points on the board, it will be viewed as the worst in the division.
Division Rank: 4th