The following is Part Four in a series profiling the most essential positions that will determine success for the Browns in 2009. After beginning the series by looking at the team's traditional weaknesses at linebacker and along the defensive line, Reboot profiled the team's drama drenched shortcomings at wide receiver. Today, we return to the backbone of any functional franchise and examine the players who will hopefully keep Brady Quinn alive in 2009.
As It Stands Again - Offensive Line
Although we have a short frame of reference to work with, it already appears that Eric Mangini is attempting to reverse many of the recent damaging decisions made in Cleveland, going back even to the Dwight Clark years. Consider that Mangini has brought in three quality veteran offensive linemen and drafted another, which compared with the previous three regimes' is almost an entire roster's worth of talent.
The refusal to draft offensive linemen plagued the Browns in their first six years of re-existence, and the subsequent, highly expensive free agent patchwork job done by Phil Savage further set the position back. Although Savage did bring Joe Thomas and Eric Steinbach to Cleveland, his refusal to consistently draft linemen has led to the need for expensive veterans such as Rex Hadnot and the likes of Kevin Shaffer.
Enter Eric Mangini who so far has brought a more common sense approach to depth building, as he clearely favors experience, volume and financial restraint. The additions of John St. Clair, Floyd Womack and George Foster will not make even the most idealistic of Browns fans excited, but these players bring a sense of depth to the line that hasn't been seen in over a decade. Add in first round pick Alex Mack, who appears to be a legitimate starter, and the Browns line could be surprisingly effective in 2009.
One thing that is striking about Eric Mangini is his Belichickian desire for versatility. In viewing the Browns' offensive line in 2009, and realizing the
unfortunate propensity for injury that permeates through Cleveland, you can get a sense that the Browns are fairly deep at most of the line positions. This depth should come in handy when Ryan Tucker suffers his annual season-ending injury in Week 5.
In further breaking down the O-line, it is apparant that Joe Thomas and Alex Mack will be the core of the line during the Mangini years. While Reboot has criticized Thomas in the past for not being able to handle top tier speed rushers, I have to acknowledge that the Browns are incredibly fortunate to have him as their left tackle. Thomas is light on his feet and can be devastating in run blocking. Although the theory of the lockdown left tackle is a bit idealistic in the league, Thomas is very consistent, both in terms of his play and his ability to stay healthy.
The first round selection of Mack was intriguing, considering the amount of times the Browns traded down in April's draft. In some respects, Mack kind of fell to Cleveland, as it appeared the Browns's draft strategy was smartly conceived to gain more picks, rather than to target picking a center. However, if you look at Mangini's time with the Jets, it is obvious that the new boss covets athletic, tough offensive linemen. In many ways, Alex Mack is Mangini's new Nick Mangold. Or, in a more logical comparison, Mack is an athletic upgrade over Hank Fraley.
To a lesser degree, Mack's assimilation in 2009 could be the focal point of the line. If Mangini decides that Mack is able to man the center position from the start of the season, it opens up possibilities across the rest of the unit. For example, if Hank Fraley survives Camp Mangini, it is possible that he could line up at right guard, or in another scenario, keep his starting center spot, while Mack begins the year at guard.
The sea change being ushered in by Mangini will become more evident based on the inclusion of Eric Steinbach in the starting lineup. Based on his time with the Jets, it is obvious that Mangini likes his guards to be heavier and more physical, two things that Steinbach is not. Steinbach, while effective, is more of a technician and relies more on leverage. Reports have indicated that Mangini would like to see Steinbach add some bulk, which may have coincided with Rex Hadnot receiving starting camp reps at left guard.
Much like the potential of Mack, Steinbach could easily man several spots across the line. However, considering his massive contract, it would be hard to envision him being a backup in 2009. The ideal scenario would see Steinbach manning the left guard spot, next to Mack. Much like he did in 2007 with Joe Thomas, Steinbach could help Mack transistion into the league and have a successful rookie season.
The forgotten man from 2008, Rex Hadnot, is now looking like a major player heading into 2009. While Hadnot struggled mightily at times in 2008 as he played the role of ugly sister, he has received some reps at both guard spots during OTA's and mini-camp. Hadnot certainly brings good size and has the versatility to play both guard spots and center, which are traits Mangini clearly desires. Ideally, it would seem Hadnot could be the top backup along the line, but so far in mini-camp, he looks like he is challenging for a starting spot.
The fulcrum of the Browns' line in recent years has been Ryan Tucker. Along with being one of Reboot's favorite players, Tucker has also been one of its most heartbreaking. If you view the Browns' offensive fortunes of the past two years, it is clear that the running game has clicked when Tucker has been healthy. In 2007, Tucker was very effective on the right side of the line. If he is again healthy in 2009, he could man the right guard spot, which will be vital in establishing an effective running attack.
Considering Tucker's advanced age, right guard is slowly becoming the only position where he can be an effective starter. Tucker's loss of quickness makes him a liability at right tackle, at least when facing smaller, quicker pass rushers. This lack of versatility could hurt Tucker's roster status in 2009. His production in training camp will be very interesting to watch.
The rest of the lineup represents Mangini's vision of building immediate roster depth by bringing in an infusion of short-term veteran bodies. Much like the arrivals of Corey Ivy, Hank Poteat, David Bowens and Eric Barton on defense, the additions of John St. Clair, Floyd Womack and George Foster give the team several options for the present, while not handcuffing the organization going forward.
St. Clair is probably most intriguing of the three, as he has the ideal size to play right tackle. St. Clair is physical and has starting experience. While it's unrealistic to think he will be a starter for the next five years, it is somewhat comforting to imagine a healthy Tucker, or rejuvenated Hadnot securing the right side of the line. Womack, although not incredibly athletic, brings the kind of versatility that Mangini covets, as he could play at the guard or tackle spot.
And in completely unrelated news, Isaac Sowells just cracked open a bag of Cheetos.
While there are several possibilities to be sorted out in training camp, there remains two constants for the Browns' line entering 2009. First, there seems to be a sentiment among the coaching staff that the team will become a more run-based offensive attack, at least compared to the Rob Chudzinski offenses of the past two seasons, which featured downfield passing as the key to opening up running lanes.
Second, the position battles across the line should be intriguing to watch unfold during training camp, as the only constant on the line is Joe Thomas lining up at left tackle. Both guard spots seem to be up for grabs, however the loser of these battles could wind up at right tackle. And of course, the Browns could begin the season with a rookie manning the center spot, which could create even more ripples throughout the line.
Joe Thomas continues to improve and becomes one of the top 3 left tackles in the league. Steinbach retains his left guard position and gives the Browns one more solid year before being cut in 2010. While Steinbach is still here, he helps mold Alex Mack into a surprisingly effective rookie center. Ryan Tucker remains healthy (remember, this is the "Ideally..." section) and returns to his pre-2008 form, helping the Browns running attack in the process. John St. Clair holds down the right tackle spot until a better option is found for 2010. Rex Hadnot becomes the O-line's version of a 6th man, and Womack and Fraley offer veteran depth. Finally, everyone stays healthy and the Browns' running attack is the surprise of the year.
Since this is the Cleveland Browns offensive line...Thomas is consistent in the run game, but again struggles against dynamic pass rushers. Steinbach is benched early in the season in favor of Rex Hadnot, which affects the pass blocking. Alex Mack is overwhelmed as a starter and struggles through the early part of the season. Ryan Tucker goes on IR and the combination of St. Clair and Womack are physical, but are beaten badly during pass blocking. Fraley does not survive Camp Mangini, which leaves the depth exposed when the starters start to go down.
Although the above is more of an apocolyptic vision of the Browns' line, it is somewhat comforting to see that Mangini has several options to play with in 2009. Thomas and Mack (there's your Anderson Hunt reference for the day) form a great young core, and combined with several versatile veteran components, the Browns O-line could be surprisingly effective in 2009. Considering the weaknesses in the passing game, the play of the line is vital for the offense to become productive.
Now, cross your fingers....no injuries this year.
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