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Joel Bitonio confident Browns O-line can excel amid 'fresh start'

The Browns offensive line is prepared for what Joel Bitonio called a "fresh start" as Cleveland dives into its offseason workouts.

The left guard is one of three remaining starters on a group that saw a pair of key cogs — center Alex Mack and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz — part ways with the team last month in free agency.

But trust they don't want to miss a beat, as Bitonio last week laid out expectations for a unit that will begin to take shape in the coming months.

"We're working together. Every year, you are going to lose guys in free agency and stuff. It's just part of the process. I'm excited with the group we have," Bitonio said, adding, "everyone is really working hard and trying to put their best foot forward."

Along with Bitonio, veteran left tackle Joe Thomas and right guard John Greco, the Browns are searching for a few missing pieces on an offensive line that was hampered by injuries and other issues last season.

While there were certainly highs for the group — Thomas was named to his ninth Pro Bowl in as many years, Mack made the Pro Bowl and Bitonio was selected to All-Under-25 team — Cleveland's offensive line was criticized as the rest of the offense sputtered throughout the year.

Bitonio said that's just life as a big man in the trenches.

"That's the hard part about offensive line," he said, "it's kind of a production-based business. If you don't have a 1,000-yard runner or you're not running for 100 yards a game, a lot of people or the casual fan might watch and say, 'Gosh, these guys aren't playing very well.'"

Bitonio said some of that criticism is fair: The Browns gave up 53 sacks (the second most in the league) and couldn't get the run game consistently going last year.

But the third-year player also offered something of a defense for a unit that would appear to have the talent and the potential to be one of the league's better groups with a player the caliber of Thomas leading the charge.

"(The struggles were) kind of all around, but when you look at a stat, they are like, 'Oh, 30-something sacks given up,' everybody equates that to the O-line. You look at it and they only rushed for X-amount of yards, everybody equates that to the offensive line. It goes around," he said.

"Everybody has their blame, but I don't think you can argue that Joe Thomas was the best left tackle in football. I don't know if everybody watches the film, but he is a stud. There is no question about it. He might get an offside penalty or something like that, but it is amazing what he does. I just personally think people don't respect it as much as they should. Joe Thomas is one of the best left tackles to ever play the game. It's hard seeing that kind stuff."

Against that backdrop, Bitonio said the offensive line has a chip on its shoulder this offseason.

"These guys are great players, and it didn't come together like we wanted to last year. Three wins? Inexcusable," he said, "but we're going to work this year."

And as first-year coach Hue Jackson likes to say when asked about the team's departures in free agency, they're not going to bury their "heads in the sand."

"We're going to work. It provides more opportunities for guys that are on this football team to set up and seize those positions," Jackson said. "Now, only time will tell who those men are and what they will be able to do, but we do know that there are some people here that have an opportunity to move forward in their careers and get better just like the men before them."

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