For months, plenty of attention has been devoted to what the Browns plan to do under center for 2016.
But what about AT center? That's the lead on this week's edition of the Browns Mailbag.
How are we going to address the center position? Are we comfortable filling that position in-house, FA or the draft? -- Steve P., Winston-Salem, North Carolina
I know you're gonna laugh but dude, we need a center. If you can't get any of the top three you might try this guy Austin Blythe. -- Steve D., Tampa
Will the Browns draft Ryan Kelly from Alabama at No. 32 to replace Alex Mack? -- Beau R, Adelaide, Australia
These sorts of questions have been flooding the mailbag ever since Mack, a three-time Pro Bowler, signed a lengthy deal with the Atlanta Falcons. The questions, of course, are understandable. Mack was an integral piece to Cleveland's offensive line, and never was that more apparent than 2014, when the team's running attack nosedived after Mack suffered a season-ending injury.
The Browns never really replaced Mack in 2014, going with three different options at the position that proved to be ineffective. So how can the team avoid that sort of setback in 2016? There are a few options.
The first and simplest would be seeing former first-round pick Cameron Erving come back ready to roll in his second season and seizing the job. Erving didn't play the position until the midpoint of his senior season at Florida State but his performance in the middle of the offensive line and his display of versatility was a major reason why the Browns drafted him at No. 19. In his rookie year, though, Erving took minimal repetitions at center, instead splitting his time primarily at the guard positions and left tackle. Injuries to Joel Bitonio and John Greco forced Erving into action at guard, but an opportunity never arose at center because Mack never missed a snap. It was a good problem to have.
Now, Erving has a chance to lock down a spot in the middle of the line if that's the path Cleveland's new coaching staff chooses for him. Assistant head coach Pep Hamilton was non-committal on a specific spot for Erving when he met with reporters last month -- Mack and Mitchell Schwartz were still on the team -- but he's had another month to dig into the film and strategize with his assistants.
"I do feel like with the style of offense that we'll end up using that there will be opportunities for us to put more than five offensive linemen on the field," Hamilton said. "I'm not saying that Cam can't go in, compete and win a job. It was good to see that there were times when he was a dominant player. We expect that over time the more that he plays and once he has a chance to work with the offensive line coaches that we have here, he can be an every-down player for us."
Another in-house option could be veteran John Greco, who has plenty of experience at the position. Though the Browns struggled with him at center in the game he started in 2014, that can be attributed to the drop-off the team experienced at right guard when Greco moved out of that spot. If Cleveland feels comfortable enough with its options behind Greco, -- a list that now includes recent signee Alvin Bailey -- that sort of shift is certainly an option.
And then there's the free agency/draft route. A handful of free agents remain on the market, including former Jacksonville center Stefen Wisniewski, who ranked No. 83 on NFL.com's list of top 99 free agents. The draft provides plenty of options, too, with Kelly leading the pack. Expecting him to be available at No. 32 could be a fool's errand, but he's projected as the one of the only centers with the potential of being a first-round pick. Blythe, the former Iowa product, could be available Day 3.
With the "Free Agency Frenzy" calming down, here's a look at the top remaining NFL free agents according to walterfootball.com's top-100 list. As of March 21, 2016.
Will one of the top three QB prospects be there at 32? -- Matt M., Willowick
That possibility becomes more plausible if the Browns don't take a quarterback at No. 2. There aren't a ton of teams looking to address quarterback in the first round of this year's draft, and one perceived lock as of a month ago, Houston, filled its spot with Brock Osweiler. Another potential team, Philadelphia, devoted significant money to the position with the re-signing of Sam Bradford and signing of Chase Daniel. The 49ers and Rams certainly could take a quarterback with their respective picks, but neither should be considered locks. Bills general manager Doug Whaley recently said he'd consider taking a quarterback early in the draft, so Buffalo can't be completely discarded. Ultimately, it's plausible that the draft's second- or third-best quarterback could be available at No. 32, but it's nothing close to a certainty.
Do you think there will be a couple more free agent signings before the draft? -- Douglas B., Bolivar
I'd gauge to say it's likely, as many players who still have plenty of years left in them remain on the market. You can bank on players such as CB Leon Hall, S Reggie Nelson, DL Nick Fairley and others landing with squads before April's draft. Free agency gets all the hype during its first week, but it truly doesn't end throughout the spring and summer.