For Browns, Picking Offensive Line in 2021 NFL Draft Easier Said Than Done

The Cleveland Browns could select an offensive lineman in the 2021 NFL Draft, but it's not as simple as it seems given the state of their roster.
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When it comes to the NFL Draft, occasionally there is discussion that Cleveland Browns could draft offensive line help, but given the state of their roster, that's not as simple as it seems. Excluding the starting five, the Browns still have two tackles, four guards and a pair of centers in addition to Chris Hubbard who can play both tackle and guard in a pinch on their roster.  The Browns may really like what they have and they can't keep all of them.

Part of the reason the Browns find themselves with so many offensive linemen is due to the pandemic. Three offensive guards opted out of the 2020 season for the Browns including Drew Forbes, Colby Gossett and Malcolm Pridgeon. The Browns have released Pridgeon, but for the moment Forbes and Gossett are still on the roster.

Presented with the challenge of having to find depth, the Browns added Michael Dunn and then eventually Blake Hance. 

Dunn was with the Browns all of last year, first with the practice squad and eventually the active roster when Chris Hubbard suffered a dislocated kneecap followed up by a injury to Nick Harris. Dunn only played in one game, but it was the wildcard against the Pittsburgh Steelers and he was outstanding before suffering a calf injury, which led to the legend of "a guy named Blake".

It was only one game, but when Dunn stepped in, he excelled against Cameron Heyward, who is a great player. Even if it was a fluke, the Browns are going to want to find out in training camp this year.

Whether it's Dunn or Hance, who was forced into action at left tackle against the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round, much of the credit goes to Bill Callahan, the offensive line coach.

Callahan is as good as it gets in the NFL when it comes to the offensive line, so perhaps there's a thought that he can make anyone into an effective offensive lineman, even if for only one game. The thinking then goes to finding better athletes, prospects to use his gifts on to produce special players.

Drew Forbes is that player. An elite athlete, Forbes was set to enter training camp with a chance to compete for the starting right guard job against Wyatt Teller. When he opted out, Teller won the job by default and proceeded to excel in a manner no one saw coming. There was reason to believe he'd improve based on being more comfortable at right guard and addressing functional strength, but he became an elite guard and the only thing that held him back from All-Pro honors was the fact he missed six games due to injuries.

As much as the Browns likely would have liked to have Forbes on the roster last season, opting out produced an unexpected benefit for the team. By opting out, Forbes did not count last year, so he still has three years left on his rookie deal. With Teller entering the last year of his rookie deal, the Browns have to make a decision on how they proceed with him, likely culminating in an extension.

Now, Forbes is still valuable depth at right guard, which given Teller's season last year, may prove important. But with this wrinkle of still having three years left, he likely has gone from a potential starting option at right guard to the possible heir to Bitonio's throne at left guard.

Bitonio's current deal is set to end after 2022. Perhaps the Browns will want to keep him another year after that, but he will be approaching 32 years of age and they could decide to go younger, perhaps cheaper. Forbes will be 26 years old on the last year of his rookie deal and they can plug him, get a year to evaluate him and then decide on whether to extend him.

At center, the Browns have Nick Harris and Javon Patterson, who spent last season on the practice squad, behind J.C. Tretter. Harris was drafted in the fifth round of the 2020 NFL Draft and given a pretty long run way to get prepared to take over for Tretter.

The notion that perhaps the Browns should draft another center is largely born out of two games where Harris served as an injury replacement out of position against the worst possible matchups for him. 

Despite being a 21-year old rookie that needed to get significantly stronger as he had issues with massive defensive tackles that could overwhelm with size, he played against both New York teams that featured those exact players. Particularly against the Jets against Foley Fatukasi, one of the better nose guards in the NFL, Harris was completely outmatched.

Harris might be able to play guard in his third year in a pinch when he's gotten much stronger, but his lack of length was always going to limit him in that position in the NFL. The fact he played guard at the University of Washington before moving to center doesn't mean he can be an NFL guard.

The Browns drafted him to be a center and while being able to play multiple interior positions would make him more valuable as depth, if he eventually starts at center and never plays anything else, will his inability to contribute at guard matter?

And should the Browns draft another center, even if they can play guard as well, the Browns would be making the calculation they can waive Harris. Cutting a fifth round pick with the possibility of getting them back on the practice squad if he clears waivers isn't the end of the world, but it seems unlikely unless the Browns see someone they just adore at the position in the draft, which would likely be selected much earlier than Harris.

It's a good center class, so it's possible. The Browns will likely give Tretter plenty of team periods off in training camp, which will enable whoever the Browns have at center behind him to get plenty of reps.

For the preseason, Tretter, Bitonio and Conklin may not play much, if at all. Forbes and Harris could end up playing a significant amount in those games as a result.

Chris Hubbard was the sixth man on the offensive line in 2020 and maybe there's a scenario where they don't keep him, but the team really likes him and he really likes the Browns. Coming off the dislocated kneecap, the Browns can be extremely patient with his recovery. Certainly, they want to make sure he'll be ready for the season, but they don't need to have him take reps in training camp for that.

They can focus on players like Alex Taylor and Greg Senat, the team's two backup tackles at this point. Taylor is quite possibly the most interesting prospect in the offensive line room because he was impressive as an undrafted rookie in camp, but failed to make the team due to an injury and was waived.

Later in the season, Taylor was signed to the practice squad. A former basketball player out of South Carolina State, the 6'8" Taylor has been in the process of transforming his body for the NFL. After being a long, skinny kid trying to survive at the Senior Bowl while giving a ton of effort, he looked more like an offensive lineman when he got to camp with the Browns.

Between an increased comfort level with the position and continuing to change his body, Taylor has an opportunity to really showcase improvement in training camp this year. 23 years old, Taylor could make a strong case to be the team's swing tackle if he can effectively anchor against power while being able to take advantage of his ridiculous length.

Senat appears to be a situation where he really wanted to come back and get coached by Callahan again, only further showcasing his value to the Browns. Senat was signed to the Browns practice squad last season before eventually being signed by the Dallas Cowboys to finish out the season. He's now back and while he is depth in camp, the 27-year old Senat may be looking this as an opportunity to try to get more coaching from Callahan, making himself more attractive to other teams in the event he's released.

The Browns may find themselves in a position where they could potentially trade some of their offensive line depth to other teams that won't make their final roster. It may not yield much in return. Perhaps a conditional draft pick or a player that another team wasn't going to keep anyway, but the Browns are operating from a position of strength in this regard, which is unheard of in the NFL when it comes to offensive linemen

Assuming everyone is healthy when the Browns cut down their roster for the season, if they keep nine offensive linemen, beyond the starting five, it's probably as simple as Chris Hubbard, Drew Forbes, Nick Harris and Alex Taylor rounding out the offensive line room. Maybe they keep a tenth and keep someone like Dunn.

So the Browns could see someone they absolutely love in the NFL Draft that plays offensive line and take them, but it's more likely they bring in a few undrafted free agents to see what they can do, saving the draft to address some massive holes on their defensive depth chart and special teams units.

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