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OTAs & Minicamp

Browns encouraged by deep group of interior O-linemen heading toward training camp

With much of the attention focused on receivers, running backs and No. 6, the big fellas up front are going overlooked in Cleveland.

That's fine. Linemen don't get a lot of love anyway (especially if you're JC Tretter, who was a bit bummed out Wednesday when he found out how low his throw power rating was in the upcoming Madden NFL video game). But if one area deserves some examination, it is the offensive line, which is replacing a starter at right guard and doesn't yet have a clear-cut guy.

At least, that's what seems to be the case after a month of work in Berea.

Three different players earned right guard reps with the first team during mandatory minicamp this week: Austin Corbett, Eric Kush and Kyle Kalis.

We had previously seen Kalis get into the rotation and Corbett work at center at times during OTAs, something that head coach Freddie Kitchens was just a product of media only being permitted to watch one practice per week. Kush, meanwhile, is listed as a guard and has experience playing both guard and center in his six seasons in the NFL.

All three are realistic options, with Corbett considered the projected favorite (based on his status as a 2018 second-round pick) and Kalis serving as the surprise with a local tie (he was a four-star recruit coming out of Lakewood's St. Edward's High School). He was a late arrival and was primarily a practice squad player in 2018, but he's getting plenty of attention during this period of the offseason.

Check out photos from the last day of Browns Minicamp

"He has come in, he put his head down, he is a weight room guy, he is strong, he has good footwork, he does the right thing, he asks the right questions," Browns All-Pro guard Joel Bitonio said of Kalis on Thursday. "He is showing some serious growth this offseason. I think last year he kind of got thrown in at the start of the year, so he did not really have a chance to digest the whole offense and he is growing. He has showed some good things and I think he is riding hard behind the competition with (Austin) Corbett, (Eric) Kush and (Bryan) Witzmann, and all those guys."

There's also the free-agent addition of guard Bryan Witzmann, who played with Kush in Chicago in 2018 and also saw time when injuries to Kyle Long forced a reserve onto the field. Both he and Kush started at one of the two guard positions for the Bears at different points of 2018, and both demonstrated their capability to serve as reliable depth interior linemen. Both also started their careers in Kansas City, when Browns general manager John Dorsey was running the Chiefs.

And there's also rookie lineman Drew Forbes, who's listed as a tackle and projects more as a guard, but hasn't yet made the official shift to the position. He saw reps at right guard with the reserves Wednesday, adding him into the mix.

The key to this entire puzzle is really what Dorsey and Browns head coach Freddie Kitchens have stressed all along: competitive depth. Bitonio summed it up nicely Thursday.

"I think they want to find the starting right guard and then I think they want to find a backup center, too," he said. "And they are getting reps at left guard, right guard and center because if you are the backup interior guy you got to be able to play all three."

This is true. Last season alone, Kush played left and right guard in Chicago. He played center for the Rams before ultimately being cut at the end of training camp in 2016. It's a common expectation to have.

Forbes' switch is a bit more complicated, though, because he is shifting from left tackle to right guard, at least for some reps. That requires a change in footwork and technique nearly across the board, basically teaching a right-handed scribe to write with his/her left, only with multiple extremities involved. 

Bitonio -- who once also shifted from left tackle to left guard upon arriving in Cleveland -- thinks he's better suited for the interior, anyways.

"It took me a while to realize everything happens a lot quicker inside, so I think he's understanding that, but he plays like a guard," Bitonio said of Forbes. "It's easy for him. He's physical, he gets his hands on guys, he's tough, he has that guard kind of mentality, so I think it suits him a lot better being inside anyway. But he's grown. He's learning, he's very aggressive, so he's almost one of those guys you have to calm down a bit but he's done good. He's another good guy to kind of be in that mix."

It sounds as if Forbes' path is longer and more focused on development than immediate playing time. It also seems the Browns have the right guy in offensive line coach James Campen, a new arrival from Green Bay, to teach both the competitive depth guys and the longer-term projects to be more than prepared to step into action.

"We're trying to develop guys," Bitonio said, "and I think Camp has some really, really good pass protection drills, run protection -- it's harder to run block in (minicamp) but pass protection, you're really trying to develop fundamentals and he's really stressed those fundamentals and trying to grow guys individually so they can help the team."

It's truer with offensive and defensive linemen than anyone: We'll really start to glean valuable information and see legitimate separation once the pads come on. Fretting about who's getting reps before then is a fool's exercise. Both Bitonio and Kitchens emphasized this Thursday.

"From a knowledge standpoint, they need to be prepared to do that so they can put their best foot forward," Kitchens said. "Then show me what they got. Show us. Show us what they have. You can only do that with pads on."

Until then, we're left to wait until pads are crashing and clarity is slowly creeping into view.

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