Joel Bitonio is going through his fifth training camp with the Browns a little differently than before. After playing four seasons at left guard, Bitonio is making a big jump: he's the starting left tackle, replacing sure-fire Hall of Famer Joe Thomas.
At first, Bitonio was reluctant with the move, but he was willing to do whatever helps the team. Now, he's attacking the challenge of being a left tackle head-on. He's talked a little with Thomas, he studies his film and he's studying his opponents. It's not like it was at left guard, where Bitonio had defensive tackles laying on him and clogging running lanes. Now, he's focusing on his kick-step. He's learning.
"I am getting there," Bitonio said. "You finally play in a game and starts to become more of a reality. Practice is practice. I am getting there. I think that every day I get a little more comfortable. I feel more comfortable in my stance, position in the huddle and things like that. It is getting there."
It's a much larger switch than many would think. It's not like a wide receiver switching from the slot to the outside. This five-foot change in position is one of the hardest in the sport, and there are few who do it. Players move from tackle to guard, but rarely guard to tackle. Rams tackle Andrew Whitworth is the only one Bitonio could think of off the top of his head.
The Browns held practice Monday.
If you ask Bitonio and Hue Jackson both how Bitonio played in Thursday night's preseason opener, you'd get mixed results. Bitonio said: "I did OK." Jackson said he did a good job. Regardless of the reviews, it was Bitonio's first game reps at the position. Jackson's compliment came with the pump of the brakes, though. He recognizes that Bitonio's not finished with the transition.
"I think there are still some fundamental things he has to continue to work at – he will be the first to tell you that – where he places his hands, his sets and those things," Jackson said. "It was great that we made the decision when we did. He got to play a tremendous rusher last week. H will play another one this week. He will play another one a week after that. Hopefully, by the time we get to the regular season, if that is the situation we are still in, we are ready to go."
Last week, it was Olivier Vernon, a former second-team All Pro. Friday, he'll face an upstart Buffalo front seven. Then he'll play Derek Barnett, Brandon Graham, Michael Bennett and Chris Long and the Eagles, a good test in the team's dress rehearsal game. That's all just during the preseason.
Bitonio is learning that each pass rusher has his own style. In the case of the preseason opener, he learned on the fly. Vernon is more of a power rusher, a stark contrast to Myles Garrett's style as a speed rusher. There are different blocking techniques for each. For Garrett, Bitonio makes sure to get depth on his initial kick to accommodate for the speed. For Vernon, Bitonio had to sharpen and change his approach.
But he only played eight plays. He didn't have much time to work the kinks out, but it was a start.
"There was some good stuff (against the Giants)," Bitonio said. "I felt like that last drive when we scored a touchdown, I was starting to get a little bit more comfortable and kind of wanted to play another drive or two, but it is preseason.
"We have a lot of games to play."