By Nick Shook
Around The NFL Writer
Read full post on NFL.com
A week after dancing around the idea of sending Joel Bitonio out to the edge of the Browns‘ offensive line, Hue Jackson has committed to the change.
Thanks in part to right guard Kevin Zeitler‘s early exit from Wednesday’s practice, Cleveland trotted out a left-side lineup that offensive line coach Bob Wylie termed on July 29 as “Option Z“: Bitonio at left tackle and rookie Austin Corbett at left guard. And according to Jackson, it’s here to stay.
Jackson told reporters Wednesday “it’s full speed ahead with Joel” at left tackle, per the Associated Press’ Tom Withers, explaining moving the excellent guard to tackle gives the Browns their best five up front.
It’s a remarkably quick turn for a coaching staff that just last week respectfully disagreed with future Hall of Famer Joe Thomas‘ assessment of Corbett’s future in the NFL.
“I can say confidently that I don’t think Austin Corbett is going to play tackle in the NFL,” Thomas told me on July 24. “I got to spend all of spring there watching film and practicing and coaching him up and he’s certainly a guard or a center.”
Thomas cited heavy feet and a lack of athleticism necessary to succeed at the position in the NFL, but saw a bright future for Corbett at guard or center. The problem, though, is the Browns have a need at tackle created by Thomas’ retirement.
The next logical solution was to move Bitonio out to tackle. But when Thomas’ comments made their way back to Cleveland, Jackson wasn’t ready to make the switch, saying he’d like to wait until the Browns put the pads on before they bury the idea of Corbett as a tackle (per the Akron Beacon Journal’s Nate Ulrich).
It took less than a week of pads for that to happen.
There are many interesting layers here. Bitonio is one of the league’s best guards, proving himself as such rather quickly after he was selected out of Nevada in the second round of the 2014 draft. He was also rather reluctant to make the switch.
“I think it’s something that’s pretty far down the line,” Bitonio previously told Cleveland.com’s Dan Labbe. “Right now, I’m really focused on playing left guard and trying to get whoever is playing next to me ready to play left tackle.”
Now, he’ll have to get himself ready to play left tackle.
“I’m ready to play ball,” Bitonio said. “If they want me to do that like, cool, whatever makes the Browns better. But I’ve been happy at left guard for the last four years going on five now.”
There’s also the matter of depth. Cleveland threw a lot of tackles into the fold after Thomas’ retirement, signing Chris Hubbard to play right tackle, veteran Donald Stephenson (who was suspended before camp), and former No. 2 overall pick Greg Robinson. It’s done little to solve the situation on the left side, with Robinson seeing only a short stint before suffering a concussion in camp. There’s also Shon Coleman, who isn’t as bad as he is uninspiring.
The swiftness of this last-resort decision (termed by the staff, not me) shows the other candidates didn’t do much to get Jackson’s heart racing (or the earth beneath him moving).
This isn’t a bad thing for the Browns, though. Corbett is a solid prospect and a selection the Brownshad a whole night to sleep on before making him the No. 33 pick. Bitonio is a proven lineman who, like Corbett, played tackle at Nevada. Setting this group together early in camp with plenty of time to jell bodes well, as opposed to playing a lesser lineman at one of the positions. It also allows Cleveland to get Spencer Drango prepared to fill in at guard on either side (he did so on Wednesday when Zeitler left early).
There’s still a chance Robinson — who’s been widely regarded as a massive bust since he was selected No. 2 overall by the Rams in 2014 (the same draft as Bitonio) — can prove himself worthy of a roster spot when he returns from his concussion. Bitonio made that point while admitting he’d be more comfortable at guard (they truly are two very different positions) and relying on the “do what’s best for the team” company line Wednesday.
But if Thomas was right (given his track record, he likely is), this is the lineup folks in Cleveland should get used to seeing. And as Jackson said Wednesday, it’s their best — even if it is temporarily uncomfortable.