Fresh off their bye week, the Cleveland Browns head to Foxborough to face the undefeated New England Patriots, and the season, which began with so much hype, has not gone as planned for Cleveland. They are now 2-4, and have been blown out twice.
Baker Mayfield has just seven touchdown passes compared to a league-leading 11 interceptions, Odell Beckham Jr. has just one touchdown catch, and the defense is underperforming. Yet many fans point to the offensive line as the source of the offense’s troubles.
This isn’t the whole truth, but general manager John Dorsey is clearly concerned about the unit, as reports state he’s been trying to add Washington’s Trent Williams for weeks, and is looking into other trade options as well. If nothing materializes on that front, there are still three moves the team can make to better protect their young quarterback.
This isn’t the only metric that must be taken into account, but it is one piece of the puzzle. The Browns are tied for third in the NFL in fewest QB hits allowed.
QB Hits Allowed Through Week 7:
OAK*, PIT*: 13
CLE*, NO, SF*: 25
GB, JAX, KC: 32
ARI, DAL: 35
BUF*, DEN, LAC: 39
LAR, WAS: 40
HOU, SEA: 44
ATL, NYG: 56
— Johnny Kinsley (@Brickwallblitz) October 22, 2019
This is even more impressive given that Mayfield averages 2.68 seconds to throw, which ranks him seventh among QBs with 100 or more dropbacks. He’s been better over recent weeks about this, but early in the season Mayfield was both holding onto the ball too long, leading to unnecessary sacks and hits, as well as bailing from clean pockets for no reason, rolling to his right, which usually lead to an incompletion. The OL is by no means a top-three unit, but Mayfield’s horrible pocket presence was not helping matters at all.
Per Pro Football Focus, Cleveland has a 69.6 pass block grade which ranks them 17th in the league, along with a 59.0 run block grade, 15th in the league. This is a much better representation of the group’s performance; they are not nearly as bad as many make them out to be, but they also aren’t as good as the QB hit metric makes them appear. They are decidedly average as a whole.
The Browns have two studs on their line in left guard Joel Bitonio and center J.C. Tretter. Bitonio has a great pass block grade of 78.7, and Tretter is excellent at 85.2. The other three spots on the line are the problems. Right guard Eric Kush was brought in to replace the traded Kevin Zeitler, and has not been good. He has a 65.9 pass block grade and has allowed 15 hurries. For reference, Bitonio and Tretter have allowed 13 hurries combined.
Right tackle Chris Hubbard has a respectable 65.5 pass block grade, but is a very bad run blocker. Left tackle Greg Robinson has all the physical talent in the world, but has not been able to translate that talent to results in either facet of the game.
Both tackles have made atrocious mistakes and committed costly penalties at the very worst times. It’s hard to blame the Browns for wanting to upgrade. The problem is that good offensive lineman are rarely available for trade, and when they are, it costs a lot to get them. Trent Williams is the name most often linked to Cleveland, but it seems like the Redskins will continue to be obstinate and punish Williams for being unhappy about the way the organization handled a growth on his head.
The Browns can’t afford to bank on trading for a solution to their OL issues. What they can do is shuffle some players around to form a more consistent unit. Here’s how.
3. Replace Eric Kush with Wyatt Teller
Kush was known as a solid pass protector with some serious struggles in the run game. The latter has held true, but aside from games against the weak defensive interiors of the Jets and Seahawks, Kush has also been a bad pass blocker. Towards the end of the preseason, Cleveland swung a trade with the Buffalo Bills for versatile second-year lineman Wyatt Teller.
As a rookie, Teller played both guard spots, and had a great season, earning a 78.3 pass block grade in eight games. In the preseason, he also saw time at right tackle, and played extremely well blocking for both his QB and RB. Teller would be an instant upgrade over Kush in the passing game, with the ability to also improve in run blocking. Teller is likely the long-term starter at RG, and there’s really no reason not to make the switch now.
2. Replace Chris Hubbard with Drew Forbes
Hubbard was given a big contract in free agency at the behest of then-Browns offensive coordinator Todd Haley, who had coached Hubbard in Pittsburgh. It was not a good investment, and Hubbard is almost guaranteed to be cut following the season. He’s certainly had his struggles this year, but there really isn’t a better option at RT currently. Justin McCray was forced into action there during the Tennesee game after Robinson was ejected and Kendall Lamm was injured three plays later. McCray was even worse than Hubbard. It’s not entirely fair to judge him based on that one game, but he’s been subpar his entire career.
Drew Forbes was a sixth-round pick out of tiny Southeast Missouri State, and was thought of as a major project. He possessed great size, athleticism, and strength, but the size of his program and the level of competition he faced didn’t allow for much technical refinement. A college LT, he practiced at both guard spots and right tackle, which would increase his learning curve. But Forbes improved by leaps and bounds through training camp, and was flashing throughout the preseason before suffering a knee injury against Detroit which placed him on injured reserve.
On Thursday, the team designated Forbes as one of their two players to return from IR, and he returned to practice the same day. The next three weeks will be crucial; if he shows he’s adjusted more to the NFL game (which will be hard to do in practice, but still), it would be worth it to put him on the right side and let him figure things out. The increase in athleticism could give him slightly more room for error than Hubbard, which could in turn give Mayfield those few vital extra milliseconds.
1. Replace Greg Robinson with Kendall Lamm
As noted earlier, Lamm played LT in Week 1 after Robinson was ejected. He played well, earning a 77.5 pass block grade, but it was for just three snaps. He is back to practicing, but in a limited fashion. Lamm doesn’t have Robinson’s potential, but he is a much smarter and more reliable player. He struggles in run blocking, but was good in pass protection as the starting RT for Houston in 2018.
Because he’s played both tackle spots, Lamm also could be a candidate to replace Hubbard on the right side. Perhaps he could play there until Forbes is activated, and then move to LT. Dorsey stated in his most recent press conference that he’s looking for more consistency from the line, and Lamm would provide that if healthy.