The Browns attacked the offensive line as hard as any position group last offseason.
All-Pro Jack Conklin was signed in free agency to take over at right tackle. Jedrick Wills Jr. was selected 10th overall and would take over at left tackle. Subsequently, Chris Hubbard, who started at right tackle the previous two seasons, would provide the Browns with the ultimate luxury and take over as the unit's sixth man. Rookie Nick Harris was added in the fifth round to provide even more depth and veteran Kendall Lamm, back for a second season, would provide another experienced option at either of the tackle positions.
Ultimately, the Browns needed every single one of them — and then some — in a season that tested the unit with injuries and unexpected absences. And, ultimately, all of the moves, coupled with the invaluable tutelage of veteran offensive line coach Bill Callahan, paid off in a massive way, as Cleveland's offensive line provided the backbone for one of the NFL's most improved offenses.
Cleveland's offensive line ranked No. 1 in Pro Football Focus' pass block grade and run block grade, a first in the analytics-based service's history. Not bad for a unit that added two new starters, broke in a first-time, every-game starter at right guard and had nearly half of its games impacted by an injury or two.
"It was great. A really talented group," said C JC Tretter. "Coach Callahan did a really good job of preparing us. It was really exciting. Guys always love being able to run the ball, and being in an offense that is centered around that, it is always exciting for an offensive line.
"It is exciting to know that we are all going to be back next year and will be able to grow together and continue to learn and get better, and hopefully, continue to provide this team a run game that helps this offense and this team win."
The Browns finished the regular season ranked third in the NFL with an average of 148.4 rushing yards per game — up nine spots from its 12th-place ranking in 2019. Cleveland allowed just 26 sacks — down 15 from the 41 it allowed the previous season.
The guys up front who always seem to prefer anonymity couldn't run from this kind of improvement without a little individual recognition.
G Joel Bitonio landed in his third straight Pro Bowl and was named Monday to the PFWA's All-NFL team. Conklin garnered first-team honors from the AP and PFWA. Wyatt Teller, who emerged as one of the league's best guards but had his season short-circuited by multiple injuries, earned second-team AP honors. Wills was named Tuesday to PFWA's All-Rookie team.
Simply put, the guys up front made life easier for Baker Mayfield and the Browns running backs any time the ball was in their hands.
"Those guys did an amazing job all year," RB Nick Chubb said. "I know it was probably hard for them because every game somebody new was out, having to go in and adjust with all of the different communication and all of the different things that they do to be a great O-line. Props to them because they did a great job. They were just great. They made everything happen for us."
Here's the best part: They expect to be even better next season, and there's plenty of reasons to believe they will be.
All of the maneuvering before the 2020 season set up the group to come back in full for 2021. That will allow them to establish even better chemistry than what they were able to cultivate during a 2020 offseason that was as light on on-field time as any in recent memory because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I think offensive lines always get stronger the longer they play together and the more experience they have together," said Tretter, who hasn't missed a game since the Browns signed him in 2017. "There is kind of an unspoken language on the offensive line where the more reps you get with another player, the more comfortable you are and you do not even have to say anything and you just know what the other guy is thinking. The longer a group can stay together and have that continuity, the better that group will play as the years go on."
There's also the anticipated development of the unit's two youngest players, Wills and Teller.
Wills faced a tall task entering his first NFL season even before all of the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, the former Alabama star adjusted nicely and looked the part of a cornerstone left tackle despite never playing the position in college.
"I think Jed has all of the tools to be a really talented player in this league," Tretter said. "I think he did really well this year. A full offseason or whatever we are going to have this year and another year of practice, preparation and learning under his belt, I expect definite improvements next year. I think that is what you expect out of a young, talented player like Jed."
Teller was, perhaps, the most pleasant surprise on not just Cleveland's offensive line, but the entire roster. He made constant highlights with his space-clearing pancake blocks and graded out as one of the NFL's best offensive linemen, according to Pro Football Focus.
Teller, who was acquired shortly before the 2019 season in a trade with the Bills, attacked the previous offseason and prepared himself to compete for the starting job. With a wave of players opting out, Teller didn't have too much outside pressure for the position, but he kept pushing himself to be the best he could be.
He's planning to do the same this offseason as he looks to play a key role on one of the NFL's best offensive lines.
"The first year in the system to do what we did and to have the performances we had on the offensive line is a good thing. While it sucks to go out the way we did, it shows a lot of promise," Teller said. "We all know it is hard to replicate success. I know there is going to be a target on our back, but I am looking forward to working next year, trying to get to that next step and keep on moving forward."