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Browns offseason analysis: Putting the O-line under the microscope


The resumption of our position-by-position breakdowns signals the end of our in-depth look at the Browns 2014 offense.

Last week centered on the quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and tight ends. Today, it's the five guys who helped make those guys look good whenever the ball was in their hands.

The Raw Data

LT Joe Thomas, 16 starts, Pro Bowl nominee (8th of career), 1st-team All-Pro (5th of career)

LG Joel Bitonio, 16 starts

C Alex Mack, 5 starts

RG John Greco, 15 starts at RG, 1 at C

RT Mitchell Schwartz, 16 starts

C Nick McDonald, 7 starts

C Ryan Seymour, 3 starts

RG Paul McQuistain, 1 start

The Rankings

Rushing offense - 108 yards per game - 17th

Sacks allowed - 31 - 13th fewest

QB hits - 79 - 14th fewest

Rushes of 10 yards to left - 18 - 16th

Rushes of 10 yards to center - 5 - 29th

Rushes of 10 yards to right - 19 - 12th

The High Point

The Browns' running attack was at its most potent when the team had its back against the wall early in the second half of the season opener at Pittsburgh. With Ben Tate sidelined because of an injury, rookies Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell took over thanks to some big help from their blockers. West notched the Browns' only 100-rushing yard performance of the season and Crowell had two second-half touchdowns as Cleveland utilized an uptempo attack to finish with a season-high 191 rushing yards. Brian Hoyer was sacked just once during a second half in which he led the Browns back from a 24-point deficit but lost on a Pittsburgh game-winning field goal.

The Low Point

Oct. 12 was supposed to be a day to celebrate. The Browns not only beat the Steelers by their biggest margin since 1989, but it was also just the third time in 23 tries against their arch rival. But a season-ending injury to Mack put a bit of a damper on the rout and presented a challenge the team wasn't able to overcome the rest of the season. Greco slid over to center for the following game against Jacksonville, but the dropoff was too steep at right guard, so he quickly moved back to his old spot. McDonald and Seymour each took their turn and both dealt with injuries. The running game, and offense as a whole, simply wasn't the same over the final 11 games.

Best Moment

This play had nothing to do with blocking and everything to do with hustle. Ultimately, it was considered one of the best plays by any Brown this season. Billy Cundiff's long field goal attempt to end the first half at Atlanta came up short and Devin Hester, one of the best return men in NFL history, had the ball in his hands with plenty of turf in front of him. Hester was potentially one move away from scoring when Bitonio came sprinting from the opposite side of the field to drop him to the ground. A touchdown could have been a backbreaker, but the Falcons came away with nothing in a game that ended with a Browns game-winning field goal.

Surprise, Surprise

The Browns knew they had something special in Bitonio when they quickly nabbed him with the 35th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. It's hard to believe anyone expected this kind of steady, veteran-like performance from start to finish, though. Bitonio was not only one of the Browns' most consistent offensive linemen, but also one of the best at his position in the entire NFL. Though he didn't land a spot in the Pro Bowl -- an honor his teammates and coach believed he deserved -- Bitonio finished the season as's second-best guard. Being sandwiched between Thomas and Mack helped expedite Bitonio's development, and he's used the two Pro Bowl veterans as sources of knowledge ever since he arrived in Berea less than a year ago.

Quote to Note

"I think it has great potential. If you look at the beginning of the year when Alex was playing, there were some really good things going on. There were still good things going on but there were some really good things happening. We've got the vets coming back. Joe, Alex, John, Mitch, they've all been in it for a while and they're all under contract and you've got young guys who got thrown into the fire this year ... If we can keep the majority of the O-line together, it's going to be really cohesive." -- Bitonio, Dec. 29

Outlook for 2015

As Bitonio explained, the Browns are in solid shape to return their entire starting offensive line in 2015. Bringing back a healthy Mack may feel like the group landed one of the NFL's top free agents because the impact will be that significant. Looking further down the depth chart, Cleveland doesn't even have a single, unrestricted free agent on the offensive line. Seymour and Andrew McDonald, who was acquired late in the season off waivers, are restricted free agents. If the Browns want to add some depth, a handful of veterans with starting experience are available through free agency. The group includes Doug Free (Dallas), Bryan Bulaga (Green Bay), Fernando Velasco (Carolina) and James Carpenter (Seattle). The Browns have been solid in recent years at identifying talented, reliable offensive linemen through the draft, so the potential is there to pad the depth and facilitate competition with a rookie or two. Brandon Scherff (Iowa), Andrus Peat (Stanford) and La'El Collins (LSU) are among the top-rated tackles while A.J. Cann (South Carolina), Arie Kouandjio (Alabama) and Josue Matias (Florida State) are the top guards.

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