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Why the Browns made such a strong push to sign OL Kevin Zeitler

When right guard Kevin Zeitler signed with the Browns last month, he pointed to head coach Hue Jackson as grounds for coming to Cleveland.

"It might sounds ridiculous," said Zeitler, who spent four seasons with Jackson in Cincinnati, "but because Hue is here, I believe."

Likewise, the Browns believe in Zeitler, who is widely considered one of the NFL's best young offensive linemen.

"He's good. He's tough, strong, great initial quickness, finishes blocks, he knows the system, he knows how to play within the system that I incorporate here," Jackson said last week at the league's Annual Meeting in Phoenix.

"He's an unbelievable guy and loves to play. So he fits. I think he'll hit the ground running just because he'll understand what we're trying to do Day 1 more so than somebody else."

The Browns fortified their offensive line with the additions of Zeitler, former Packers center JC Tretter and 49ers center Marcus Martin, who was claimed off waivers, during the opening period of free agency. Of course, they also return 10-time Pro Bowler Joe Thomas and recently-extended left guard Joel Bitonio.

Zeitler's path to Cleveland, though, garnered extra attention after the Browns made such a large investment in the 27-year-old.

"I think almost all these decisions are pretty nuanced. I think with Zeitler in particular, we set a new bar, we thought it was a different situation in that here's a player who we felt is still in the prime of his career — in fact has some prime years going forward — has played in our division, has played for Hue, knows that offensive system already," chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta said.

"I mean literally he's going to show up to OTAs and already know the calls. That's pretty rare in a free agent to find all those things, so certainly we stepped out further than anyone has ever stepped out on a guard."

The Browns weren't alone. This year's edition of free agency saw offensive linemen -- guards in particular -- receive high-dollar contracts that were previously unheard of at the position.

"I'm not sure of where the market will head on offensive linemen to be honest, but I do think overall in free agency you're seeing some of the veteran free agents — particularly early in free agency — get larger and larger contracts in proportion in increases in the cap," executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown said. "For us it was about adding a young man in Kevin and JC that feel like that can really help us. And in Kevin's case, kind of setting a market for the guard position but a guy that knows Hue's system, plays every snap, is rugged, and will help us for a long period of time.

DePodesta, though, made clear Zeitler's deal was "actually more about Kevin Zeitler than it was about the position and even just the history he has."

"We felt like he could step right in," he said, "and be a really good player for us right away."

Zeitler started 71 of 72 games with the Bengals, playing at an increasingly high level as his career progressed. So the Browns made sure to compensate him as such.

"I think that was a huge piece in getting him to come," Jackson said. "But he'll show his worth very quickly. He's a really good player."

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