The Browns' new-look offensive line is still taking shape, but the coaching staff has been pleased — and then some — with the progress the group has made through the course of offseason workouts.
"They've gotten better. They really have. They're battling," said head coach Hue Jackson, who met with reporters Thursday as the team concluded its mandatory veteran minicamp, marking the end of offseason workouts.
"Joe Thomas is the leader of that group, and he's done a great job. I told them in front of him, we're going to get on his back and we're going to ride it. We're going to ride that group to wherever we are going to go. They're kind of the backbone of how we do things. The quarterback drives the train, but the line is what makes us go."
Indeed, behind the veteran and nine-time Pro Bowler Thomas, Joel Bitonio and John Greco, the Browns have said they want to be a "run-oriented" offense.
And over the past few months, the team has made headway on filling two open starting jobs at center and right tackle following the departures of former linemen Alex Mack and and Mitchell Schwartz, who parted ways with the team during free agency.
"I think the group is starting to take its shape and form," Jackson said.
While nothing is set in stone — Jackson made as much clear last week, saying OTAs and minicamp served to lay a "foundation" prior to training camp — Cameron Erving, the 2015 first-round draft pick, and Alvin Bailey, who joined the team in March via free agency, have fared especially well in increased roles along the offensive line.
Erving has taken first-team reps at center while Bailey, formerly of the Seahawks, has started at right tackle.
"There's going to be a lot of competition," offensive line coach Hal Hunter said Thursday, adding Bailey has particularly impressed him over the course of workouts. "He's got a ways to go to be able to do what we want, but he's making progress."
To be sure, there are a host of candidates also competing for playing time. Among them are rookies Shon Coleman (the third-round pick from Auburn who is expected to be fully healthy by training camp) Spencer Drango (the former All American from Baylor) Austin Pasztor and Michael Bowie, who have seen time at tackle.
The Browns took to the field to finish the three-day veterans' minicamp.
"Spencer Drango has come in and has kind of been a little bit of a surprise. He's been working the backup right tackle, picking up the offense good. He's a tough, competitive kid, fairly athletic," Hunter said. "He's still got a ways to go, but he's in there. Michael Bowie played a little bit of right tackle early in the spring, and he played some guard. He's been finishing out the last couple weeks at left tackle.
"Then of course, Shon Coleman was a really impressive guy at Auburn when we watched him on tape … He'll be ready for fall camp. There are going to be a lot of guys competing at that position which is good news."
At center, Mike Matthews, the undrafted free agent from Texas A&M and son of Pro Football Hall-of-Famer Bruce Matthews, is getting reps at center.
"He's a tough kid. He's a smart kid, a competitive kid, comes from a good stock," Hunter said. "Football is important to him. I'll be anxious to see him put the pads on and let him go."
Jackson also spoke about the Browns' youth on the offensive line.
"We have some young players that are very interesting to me," Jackson said. "I know Spencer Drango shows up every day. He's very competitive and I like him. I think he's getting better. I think Cam has really improved."
Jackson added he thinks Bitonio, who was named to NFL.com's All-Under-25 team this offseason, "has the potential to be one of the better players in this league, bar none."
Still, the offensive line remains a work in progress as do other position groups. After all, that's what OTAs and minicamp are for.
"It's a good group. We still have got to put ourselves in a position to do the things that we want to do as an offensive football team, but there is some talent there," Jackson said.
"We just have to keep molding it and getting it the way we want it to be."