Browns testing possible changes along offensive line

The bye week brought the Browns much-needed rest and some time to step back and evaluate where they are as a team after six games.

With 10 contests left, there’s still plenty of football to be played — football that might be played by some new faces. 

Cleveland took a hard look at the performance of its offensive line and decided to see where its depth might be able to help it in the weeks ahead, starting with Monday’s practice in which reserve guard Justin McCray saw snaps at essentially every position on the line. McCray has been the face of versatility and availability for the Browns since arriving via trade just before the start of the regular season, filling in at right tackle for the injured Chris Hubbard and also serving as a sixth lineman when the Browns have implemented heavy packages. 

Fans might recognize McCray as the subject of an official’s in-game announcement: “No. 67 is reporting as eligible.”

“No, well, ever since I was in Green Bay, that is something that they asked me to do there,” McCray said when asked if a potential position change would be a difficult adjustment. “With (Browns offensive line coach) (James) Campen, and (Browns assistant offensive line coach) (Jeff) Blasko as well. So I just sort of got used to the role and wherever they asked me to play that is usually what I go out and do."

McCray added that all he really needs to make such an adjustment is “get some reps during the week,” a logical request for someone who’s going to be performing a task that might not come as second nature. The same might be expected from guard Wyatt Teller, another acquisition just before the start of the regular season who could also see some playing time. All seven active linemen — which included McCray and Teller — saw action in Week 6. 

It’s not certain that any changes will come, of course, with head coach Freddie Kitchens confirming only that some players are getting reps at multiple positions, a more common occurrence than one might think.

“If we are contemplating moves, you take into account everything and try to predict the future a little bit,” Kitchens said. “Ultimately, it is our job to get the best people out there that gives us the best chance to win one game. That is all we are looking to do, win one game right now.”

Check out photos from today's practice by team photographer Matt Starkey

A big part of offensive line play, perhaps more than any other position group, is cohesion. The more time spent together, the better a unit usually plays, in part because it’s a group of five that has to work together at all times to both keep the quarterback free from pressure and open running lanes for running backs. Logically, then, a change would disrupt such cohesion.

This group doesn’t have years together, though, so that might not be as big of an issue as it’s made out to be. Four of the current starting five — left tackle Greg Robinson, left guard Joel Bitonio, center JC Tretter, and right tackle Hubbard — played the final eight games of 2018 together. New addition Eric Kush came over from Chicago, where he started seven games and appeared in 15.

The group definitely doesn’t lack experience, and it seems to have played better together recently, going a full game without allowing a sack in the Browns’ 32-28 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. But that convenient fact still might not be enough to keep Kitchens’ staff from replacing a lineman or two.

It wouldn’t be a change just made for the sake of change, but a chance to improve, Kitchens said.

"I think when you start talking about a group of offensive linemen, they have to be good about the person lining up next to them,” Kitchens explained. “I think any time you make a change like that, it does not go very lightly. There is a lot of thought that goes into that, and when you make a change you expect it to be for the best. If we were to do that, that is what it would be. It would be with the thinking that it would be for the best from the unit and from the team."

Another figure who is going overlooked because he hasn’t been available but is nearing a return is tackle Kendall Lamm, who joined the Browns via free agency this offseason as a quality depth addition with starting experience gained in Houston. He’s missed all but Week 1 with a knee injury he suffered when he was rolled up on while filling in at left tackle for Robinson, who had been ejected from the game.

Suddenly, the Browns were thrown into crisis up front, forcing Hubbard to move to left tackle and McCray to play right tackle. Baker Mayfield was pressured plenty as a result in a game that spiraled out of control and finished in a 43-13 defeat.  

But McCray did a solid job of filling in for Hubbard at right tackle two weeks later when Hubbard couldn’t play against the Los Angeles Rams. And Lamm’s potential for return could provide the Browns another option, as he did a solid job in place of veteran Seantrel Henderson and earned high praise from Texans head coach Bill O’Brien, who said at the time that the Texans “really like having him on the team.”

We saw plenty of shuffling during training camp, as is typical of a line coached by Campen, as McCray said. And perhaps we’ll see those changes creep into the starting lineup. We still have five days before the Browns have to make such decisions public. 

If that happens, Bitonio is confident they’ll be just fine up front.

“It is one of those things where you adapt to it,” Bitonio said. “You hear coaches all the time say [that] we want to put out best five guys out there. If they feel like they have a good five guys, then that is who we are going to roll with."

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