ORLANDO — **Every time he thinks about the Browns' current plight at left tackle, head coach Hue Jackson says his mind flashes back to Joe Thomas' retirement press conference last week inside the team's indoor fieldhouse.
"That will always go down in my memory when I think about left tackle," Jackson said Tuesday at the NFL's annual meeting. "I mean, Joe Thomas is probably going to be a first-ballot Hall-of-Fame player, so it'll be hard to replace him and what he's meant to the football team, what he's meant to the organization, to the city … You don't replace those guys right away."
Still, Jackson is well aware that the Browns must move forward without Thomas, the 10-time Pro Bowler who called it a career after a dominating 11 seasons. So is general manager John Dorsey, who signed tackles in veteran Donald Stephenson and former Steelers standout Chris Hubbard in free agency.
As the Browns take inventory of a reshaped roster — Cleveland has added 12 new players since the beginning of the new league year — Jackson said he'll mix and match players to put forth the best possible offensive line in 2018. It'll be the first time since 2006 that someone other than Thomas will start a season opener at left tackle.
For starters, Jackson said Hubbard will get the first crack at right tackle while Stephenson — who enter his seventh NFL seasons — and third-year player Shon Coleman will compete on the left side. "I'm going to let Shon and Stephenson see if they can battle it out over there," he said, "and do what I think is best for our football team as we move forward."
Jackson also said the Browns will look to add a tackle in the upcoming NFL Draft, though it's still too early to tell who or when Cleveland would target the position considering the needs at quarterback and other positions.
Jackson also suggested the Browns could move left guard Joel Bitonio one spot over if that's what will be best for the team next season. Bitonio, who was voted a Pro Bowl alternate last year, played tackle at Nevada but has yet to do so in the NFL. He is, of course, one of Cleveland's top offensive linemen.
"Everything will be on the table and possible," he said. "I always hate moving a guy who I think is one of the premier players at his position in this league to another position, but if it turns into that, we'll do that.
"One thing I know about Joel, he just wants to win," Jackson continued. "So if we think that's the best fit for him, he'll do it. But right now, he's going to start off at left guard like he has and we'll go from there.
"We'll have guys over there that are going to battle and play, there's no question about that, but Joe Thomas, it's going to take a little while to replace that guy."