Browns Offensive Line: How Did They Get Here?
The offensive line has had a massive impact on the Cleveland Browns season in 2019. It's impacted Baker Mayfield, contributing to his struggles the first six games of the season. It's been a major reason for abysmal efficiency in the red zone. Given how much better the Browns were up front last season it begs a question: How did the Browns get here? It's a combination of bad luck, a failed draft pick and focus elsewhere while trying to wait until the right time to try for a more permanent answer.
Most people immediately go to trading Kevin Zeitler for Olivier Vernon. Discussed more thoroughly in a different article, the move was prudent, but the failure was blowing the 33rd overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft. Austin Corbett couldn't do what they needed and had it been Will Hernandez or Connor Williams or even Wyatt Teller, who went three rounds later, it would've made it a much smoother transition.
Some of Mayfield's struggles the first six weeks can be attributed to the fallout from that move. Being forced to go to the underwhelming Eric Kush was problematic. His run blocking was putrid, though he tended to grade out reasonably well in pass protection. The problem is while he would get the blocks he was required, he would get driven into the backfield, impacting the pocket.
Last year, Mayfield would so often have edge rushers going up the field, step into an ample pocket provided by Joel Bitonio, J.C. Tretter and Kevin Zeitler, he could find a passing lane, extend the play or just keep it and run. That became such a huge part of the Browns offense the second half of last year.
With that pocket no longer there, Mayfield would end up abandoning clean pockets to go outside, trying to find receiver and either throw the ball away, make a poor decision or get sacked. Wyatt Teller, acquired right as the year started, has improved that situation substantially. Mayfield has looked like Mayfield the past six games.
Other than Corbett, John Dorsey has largely deferred on the offensive line, particularly the offensive tackle position, which is the most vulnerable part of the line. He drafted Drew Forbes, who looks very promising, but that's been it. And it's not clear where the team sees Forbes, be it guard or tackle. Right now, it appears guard.
That doesn't mean Dorsey hasn't tried to safeguard the offensive line. In fact, he warrants credit for what he did this past offseason, signing Eric Kush as a swing interior guy that could step in at center and guard. Obviously, they needed him. The other move was signing Kendall Lamm as a free agent from the Houston Texans.
Lamm was a mediocre run blocker but an effective pass protector with the Houston Texans. It seems as though he should've been actively competing to be the team's starting right tackle with Chris Hubbard, but they basically kept him as the backup left tackle spot. When Greg Robinson was ejected against the Tennessee Titans, Lamm stepped in and suffered a knee injury almost immediately. It's kept him out almost three months.
Seemingly healthy now, it seemed like he should've been out there at left tackle against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but they went with Justin McCray. McCray gives everything he has on every play he's in the game, but he simply can't do it. He's more suited to play guard and he pass protected like a guard against the Steelers, which had horrific results for Baker Mayfield.
Greg Robinson and Chris Hubbard have been the exact same players they were last year. Robinson might be a little better and Hubbard a little worse, but they aren't fundamentally different from last season. Hubbard struggled in run blocking and trying to anchor against power. Robinson rarely plays to his size as a run blocker and will occasionally make a critical mistake in pass protection.
The difference is Mayfield. Outside of the interior the Browns had last year, the best pass protector the Browns had last year was Mayfield. It caught many by surprise just how good he was, coming out of Oklahoma, seemingly doing things they didn't see him do there. His eye discipline was excellent and he maneuvered in the pocket at a high level. Mayfield effectively accounted for the weaknesses his tackles had and covered for them.
Mayfield wasn't doing that the first six weeks of the season. Dealing with the new reality of Kush and not trusting his pocket the way he had the previous year, his eye discipline was poor and his pocket awareness wasn't there. The tackles were no longer being protected from themselves and the offense struggled as a result.
With Teller at right guard, it's better than it was, but it's not where it was. Zeitler was a fantastic pass protector. It wasn't realistic to expect the same level of play from the next guy up on a rookie contract.
All of this played into why Dorsey was trying to trade for Trent Williams of the Washington Redskins. With Lamm injured, Kush underwhelming and the tackles exposed, he got desperate and seriously considered mortgaging his future to bail out the present. Thankfully, that didn't happen and the Browns were able to improve.
The final part of this was the planning of Dorsey. He seemingly didn't love the offensive line classes the past two years. He whiffed on Corbett, but Corbett was always projected as an interior player even if the Browns gave him a shot at tackle, which lasted not even a week. Dorsey tried to muddle through with what he had, adding more depth to try to safeguard it until the 2020 NFL Draft, while adding talent elsewhere like Odell Beckham Jr. and Olivier Vernon.
With the 2020 NFL Draft looming, it's easy to see why Dorsey was trying to get here. This draft class has a remarkable amount of offensive tackle talent available. It's not a coincidence that Greg Robinson will be a free agent this season and it's more coincidental, but Chris Hubbard has an out in his contract after this season, hopefully in a trade. They can move on from both and attack the position in the draft.
The draft is five months away, but it's difficult to imagine the Browns won't use their first pick on an offensive tackle. And they may draft more than one. They want rookie contracts to fill out their offensive line anyway. Teller might be able to provide one answer. They've also got Forbes. If they can hit on this draft class, they will have addressed the offensive line in a way that's sustainable for the next several years, which is where they want to be.
Between what's at stake in protecting Mayfield as well as the results of this season, the pressure on Dorsey and his front office is massive. They must deliver. If they do, the Browns could make a massive leap forward next season. If not, the Browns not only don't get better, they likely blew the window to get to the Super Bowl with Mayfield and players like Myles Garrett on their rookie contracts.