Browns O-linemen optimistic about group's potential after they heal up

As players cleaned out their lockers Monday, Joel Bitonio moved through the room with a walking boot on his foot. John Greco wheeled from one point to another on a scooter. Cameron Erving used crutches.

Ultimately, it summed up just how much injuries plagued a Browns offensive line that was tasked with replacing two longtime starters at the start of the season. While tackles Joe Thomas and Austin Pasztor remained relatively healthy from start to finish, the interior was a mix and match of different pieces from Week 2 to the end.

Understandably, it led to some tough weeks for the group. But as members of the unit looked back upon the 2016 season, they found sources of optimism that arose through a year of adversity and set the table for a better 2017.

"It is really bright," Thomas said. "We have a lot of quality players to choose from. I am sure we will draft an offensive lineman in the draft. Once we get the guys that are hurt back healthy, I think we have a really quality offensive line."

Injuries and suspensions affected five Browns offensive linemen at some point during the season. All of them played guard or center and, in Greco's case, a little bit of both.

Erving was lost for multiple weeks early in the season with a bruised lung. One of his replacements at center, rookie Austin Reiter, tore his ACL after an encouraging debut. Cornerstone left guard Joel Bitonio injured his foot Week 5 and never returned. Greco, who made multiple starts at center to go along with his regular work at right guard, was sidelined for good Week 12. Veteran Alvin Bailey, who initially served as the first lineman off the bench and started a handful of games, served a two-game suspension in December.

When it was all said and done, the Browns started seven different offensive line combinations throughout the season.

"If you look at some of the guys that got hurt, we really lost three starters that got hurt on the offensive line fairly early in the year," Thomas said. "Austin Reiter, who came in and was a starter getting hurt in his first game after playing really well in his first game; obviously, Joel gets hurt; and later in the season, John gets hurt. Really, that is your inside three right there. That is tough for any team to replace."

Getting healthy will be the first offseason goal. For all of the injured parties, that process is expected to be complete by training camp. The next aspect will be identifying the best five options along the line.

Pasztor, a free agent this offseason, is the only member of the group whose future with the team is uncertain. Rookie Spencer Drango got a lot of work in the second half of the season at left guard and has the ability to play multiple positions. Fellow rookie Shon Coleman got his first significant work of the year at right tackle in last week's season finale. And then there's free agency and the draft, areas from which the team is expected to supplement its roster over the course of the next few months.

"The biggest thing is guys have to stay healthy," Erving said. "Things that have happened to these guys this year are freak accidents, things that are out of ordinary. At the end of the day, we are going to fix this, the guys are going to get healthy and they are going to get out there and we are going to play ball."

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