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Cleveland Browns' Position Analysis: Offensive Line

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Cleveland Browns' Position Analysis: Offensive Line
(Photo by Kevin Terrell/Getty Images)

In an effort to learn about many of the new faces on the Cleveland Browns roster for this upcoming season, I decided to watch a little film. NFL.com has put all of last season's games on-line (for a fee), so I decided to purchase the package.

I decided to start with the offensive linemen, because this was the area about which I felt the least knowledgeable. I also knew that to write a truly informed article, I would have to watch a good deal of film.

I also wanted to start here because the Browns seem more set with this area of the team than with any other. Some positions will need to be looked at after the draft, but the offensive line is probably the closest thing the Browns have to a team strength.

The first thing I realized was just how little I really watched offensive linemen on game day. Sure, I know their reputations and what major sports news outlets have to say about them, but how much do I really know from watching with my own eyes?

Some of what I saw simply reinforced what I believed I knew. Sometimes, I was surprised at how well or how poorly one of the linemen performed.

One thing is for sure: Watching an old game and focusing on the offensive line is an eye-opening experience. It has allowed me to see the game differently and appreciate what the guys in the trenches really do. I recommend it highly.

Whenever possible, I watched a minimum of two games' worth of film on each player, spread out against six opponents on average. I tried to balance weak vs. strong opponents, early vs. late season, and first vs. second halves of games.

For example: With Joe Thomas, I watched the first 20 minutes (approximately) of Weeks One and 17 against Dallas and Pittsburgh, respectively; the middle 20 minutes of Weeks Four and 11 against Cincinnati and Buffalo; and the last 20 minutes of Weeks Eight and 14 against Denver and Tennessee.

I really wanted to know details about how each guy played.

I'll start with a look at each player individually, and then address the line as a whole.

 

Joe Thomas—16 starts at left tackle for Cleveland last season

Thomas proved to be every bit as good as advertised. He wasn't perfect, but he proved to be the most consistently impressive offensive lineman on the Browns roster.

He has extremely quick feet, which enable him to stay in front of fast edge rushers. He also uses his hands well to keep would-be tacklers away from ball carriers. He is also very effective in open space, getting out in front of screens.

The only area where he is merely above average is in short yardage runs. He gets a decent push, but not as much I thought he might.

Nonetheless, Thomas is by far the best lineman on the Browns roster. After watching him at work, the fact that he's played in two Pro Bowls in two seasons makes a whole lot of sense.

 

Eric Steinbach—14 starts at left guard for Cleveland last season

Steinbach is a very good pass blocker who rarely gets pushed back in that phase of the game. During the early season, when he was battling some injuries, he was a bit inconsistent.

However, late in the season, Steinbach showed why he was considered a top free agent in 2006.

He always seems to square up well on defenders and uses his hands well. He is very effective as a pulling blocker, having great speed for an offensive lineman. If I have one criticism, it is that he can sometimes get pushed back by larger defensive tackles.

When the Browns originally signed Steinbach, they talked about his versatility with his ability to play tackle. Mangini may consider using him on the right side if his other guys don't work out or injuries hit the line.

However, he and Thomas will likely anchor down the left side of the line for years to come.

 

Hank Fraley—16 starts at center for Cleveland last season

Fraley surprised me. Conventional wisdom in Cleveland is that Fraley doesn't have it anymore and he's too old to be effective. In the games I watched, Fraley was consistently effective at center.

Late in the season, he lost a bit against Tennessee and Philadelphia, but by no means was he poor. He gets pushed back a bit by bigger defenders, but it is rare when a defender gets by him cleanly.

Many offensive linemen do just enough work to get the runner free or the pass away, but not Fraley. He always stays with the play, running downfield in case the play turns back in his direction. I saw a number of plays where his extra effort helped a ball carrier gain a few extra yards.

Fraley continues to play good football for the Browns. While age will catch up to him eventually, he remains a viable option at center.

 

Rex Hadnot—15 starts at right guard for Cleveland last season

Hadnot was probably the most inconsistent of all the players I watched in preparing for this article. He combined long stretches of Pro Bowl-worthy play with lapses where his man would get by him with no more than a chip block.

At his best, Hadnot was effective against both run and pass, squaring up on his man and getting good leverage. In fact, he may have even been the Browns' best lineman in short yardage situations. He also uses his feet well to get into good position.

If Hadnot can become more consistent and avoid mental lapses, I believe he can have a long and productive career. He's still young enough to make it happen.

 

John St. Clair—16 starts at left tackle for Chicago last season

On paper, St. Clair is the logical choice to win the starting right tackle job for the Browns in 2009. He started all last season on the left side for the Bears. He was one of the guys I couldn't wait to see when I started watching film. 

He was a huge disappointment.

He has slow feet and edge rushers blow past him on a regular basis. It was such a huge problem that the Bears started keeping running backs in on pass plays to help him out. He reminds me a lot of the guy the Browns got rid of—Kevin Shaffer. Shaffer had similar problems with edge rushers.

On screen plays, St. Clair would simply miss the man he was attempting to block. I quickly began to understand why the Bears had so many problems in their passing game—their quarterbacks had to get rid of the ball almost immediately.

It is somewhat comforting to know that the Browns three-year deal with St. Clair includes only $600,000 in guaranteed money. I would be surprised if he lasted all three years in Cleveland. I see St. Clair as merely injury protection and experienced competition.

I hope the Browns see him the same way.

 

Floyd Womack—eight starts at right guard and six starts at left guard for Seattle last season

While St. Clair started all 16 games at one position last year, Womack opened the season on the bench and found himself playing both guard positions on an injury-depleted Seahawk line.

I thought maybe Womack would make a nice backup, perhaps as an upgrade over Seth McKinney.

What I saw on the video was a nice surprise. Womack was remarkably consistent, despite being moved around. He is an excellent drive blocker that gets a good burst on running plays. He should be an asset to the Browns running game.

He is equally adept in pass protection. In all the film I watched, I never saw him get beat. He also gets great position on his defenders and is remarkably agile for such a big man.

If the Browns are serious about every job being open to competition, I'd be surprised if Womack didn't get a starting job somewhere along the line.

 

Seth McKinney—two starts at left guard and one start at right guard for Cleveland last season

McKinney appears to better against the run than he is in the passing game. On several occasions, I saw McKinney get pushed back, collapsing the pocket. Nonetheless, he rarely lets his man get by him as he squares up well.

Against the run, he is more consistent, and occasionally shows excellent power off the line. Like Fraley, he frequently plays hard through the whistle, helping with downfield blocking.

McKinney is a solid player who can help in a reserve or spot-starting role.

 

Ryan Tucker—one start at right tackle for Cleveland last season

Tucker has had several situations that have kept him off the field in recent years. The new regime asked him to take a pay cut for this season, and he accepted.

His only appearance last season was a start against the Giants, a game that was probably the team's best in a disappointing year. Tucker may have played a role in that success.

While Kevin Shaffer, who started the other 15 games for the Browns at right tackle, was constantly beaten by faster edge rushers; Tucker held his own against a tough Giant defensive line.

He has quick feet and has a knack for getting himself into great position, whether he's playing the run or the pass. He's extremely physical in the run game, often blowing his man well off the line.

If he can stay healthy, and that's a big if, he can be a huge help to a line in need of a right tackle. His teammates have often raved about his play. I can see why.

 

Isaac Sowells—no starts for Cleveland last season

Despite not starting, Sowells saw significant action at right tackle in week four against the Bengals.

Sowells was awful. He has a remarkable inability to square up on his man. On the few occasions that he manages this task, he gets pushed back into the pocket.

He also has a habit of being slow off the line, not engaging his man, and then diving at him, which only serves to take him out of the play in the first two seconds.

I can now see why Sowells has never made it into the starting lineup: He isn't very good at playing football.

 

Overview of the 2008 offensive line

The Browns finished eighth in the NFL in fewest sacks allowed last season, with 24. Many of those can be attributed to the weakest player on the line, Kevin Shaffer, who was released.

Much of the blame for the poor performance of the running game last season went to the offensive line. To some degree, that has to be true.

However, after watching film, as much as I like Jamal Lewis and hate to admit it, Lewis was not the same player he had been the previous season.

Lewis spent a lot of time tiptoeing a few feet behind the line, instead of aggressively hitting the line as the holes opened. By the time he saw what he was looking for, he was too far away, too slow, and too late to do anything about it.

In the past, I've been of the opinion that a running game's effectiveness begins with the offensive line. I still believe that, but Lewis showed that a good back is needed to finish the job. He is no longer viable as full-time starter.

Overall, the offensive line was one of the few (perhaps the only) above average units on the team last year in a disappointing season.

 

Previewing the 2009 offensive line

Thomas should be entrenched as the starting left tackle for years to come. I don't see any reason why he won't continue to participate in Pro Bowl activities as well.

Steinbach will most likely start at left guard, where he and Thomas make up one of the best left sides in the game.

It is possible that he could be used at right tackle, considering that Mangini likes to mix things up, he has quick enough feet to pull it off, and the Bengals used him as a tackle before as well.

Fraley figures to have the inside track to remain the Browns' center. If it is determined that age has caught up with him, Hadnot or McKinney could challenge him for playing time. I'd expect to see either or both of those two guys playing some center in the preseason.

Based on what I saw on film, I like Womack's chances to win the starting spot at right guard. That being said, I wouldn't rule out Hadnot, who could provide one of the best position battles in training camp.

If Ryan Tucker can stay healthy, I would imagine he'd win the right tackle job by default. I have trouble believing that the Browns are serious about plugging St. Clair in, and Sowells shouldn't make the roster. Womack could also see action here.

All in all, I would expect the Browns offensive line to be one of the team's strengths going into the upcoming season.

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