Joel Bitonio is smiling. Always.
Walking the hallways in his trademark Nike sandals, Bitonio slaps hands with a Browns equipment employee. In the cafeteria he lets out a hearty laugh. After an intense, sweltering day of training camp, Bitonio poses for selfies with screaming diehard Browns supporters – and he eats up every second of it.
Joel Bitonio puts in the extra mile. Always.
In the meeting room, on the practice field and even with members of the media – Bitonio is showing people who he really is. A recent interview session with Bitonio lasted more than 20 minutes. The questioning had more of a campfire feel to it than a series of pressing questions.
Labeling Bitonio as a typical rookie is reading this situation totally wrong. Sure, Bitonio might occasionally carry shoulder pads after practice or be the recipient of some playful ribbing, like all young players. But in terms of his early progression and how much the franchise might count him in 2014, his Browns teammates see a common theme: Bitonio matters.
"The coaches obviously trust him enough to throw him in there right away with the No. 1s, and he's proven already that he deserves it because he's a fast learner," said Pro Bowler Joe Thomas. "You can see he's an athlete. He's strong. I think he's definitely going to be a big piece of this pie when it's all said and done."
"He's picking up the offense quick," said Alex Mack. "He's an instinctual player. He looks good."
"Smart kid," said fellow guard John Greco. "You can tell he's not the typical rookie. Sometimes those guys' heads are spinning. As far as intelligence-wise, he's right on. He shows that he's athletic and he's flying around."
"Every day you don't get better, you're getting worse," said Bitonio.
The intriguing part of Bitonio's rise up the depth chart is that he barely played guard in college at Nevada. Bitonio was the Wolf Pack's bookend left tackle his senior season, tasked with stoning pass rushers and paving the way for the teams' outside zone running game.
Bitonio compares his position switch inside to playing football inside of a 1980s phone booth. Instead of retreating as a tackle with more freedom to be creative with angles, Bitonio now has to be firm on the line, filling up space while remaining strong enough to hold off 330-pounders.
There's a fine line to walk when interpreting how impactful Bitonio has been so far.
"We've been really pleased, and I'm happier than hell that he's here," said Andy Moeller, the Browns' offensive line coach. "But by no means has he arrived. He's still got work to do."
The proof will be in the pudding and Bitonio will get his biggest test this Saturday in Detroit against the Lions.