This is the first of what we expect weekly Virtual Roundtables with theOBR staff. The idea is simple and execution is even simpler. It's an email chain among the five staffers at theOBR: Lane Adkins, Barry McBride, Fred Greetham, Dave Kolonich and Don Delco discussing the topic du jour.
Feel free to add your $0.02 in the comments below.
DON DELCO: For the inaugural question, let's give the under-the-radar guys some pub: The offensive lineman.
At least among some national writers, the Browns offensive line is one of the best in the league. It should be. The left tackle and center are first-round picks and the rookie right guard is a second round pick. There is a lot of money tied into that front five, but as good as this unit can and is expected to be, is it necessary?
I ask that because of one guy: Chad Clifton. Have you ever seen him play left tackle for the Green Bay Packers? He makes Kevin Shaffer look like an all-pro. The Packers offensive line is not considered among the best, yet they win a lot of games because of their offensive playmakers. Last season, the New York Giants offensive line had issues, but it didn't prevent them from winning a Super Bowl. I don't necessarily think in today's NFL you need an offensive line of season's past (i.e. The Hogs). You just need really good offensive playmakers to mask a poor offensive line. Whereas a good offensive line cannot make up for poor skill players.
That said, I'm glad the Browns offensive line is considered so good especially with running back Trent Richardson ready to burst onto the scene. I just worry the Browns could have been slightly further ahead if they used some of those previous higher picks and spent some of that offensive line money on skill position players sooner.
BARRY McBRIDE: Philosophically, I wouldn't buy in to the "Packers Way" simply because the level of talent required is so exceptional. I'm a believer in building in the trenches first, which I think is a more likely enabler of success than hoping against hope to strike the quarterback lottery. Aaron Rodgers and his receiver corps may be terrific enough to overcome a humdrum line, but the odds against being able to assemble this Packers-level of talent is very high.
Conversely, not only was the Browns talent at skill positions bad in 2011, it was epically so, to the extent that I'd rather have the 1999 WR corps than the 2011 WR corps. At least Darrin Chivarini could catch a pass in traffic, and Kevin Johnson was far closer to a legit #1 receiver in his rookie year than Greg Little was.
So, I'd argue that the Browns and Packers are outliers on a curve that otherwise says "build your offensive line first".
The second point I'd make is that the Browns line looks to me to be overrated at this point. National writers will take a look at the line and say "Joe Thomas, he's a stud... Alex Mack, that's a first round pick", and leap to the conclusion that the quality of the Browns personnel makes the line one of the best. I'd argue that consistency in the position is nearly as important as the level of talent. More than any other part of the team, the offensive line needs to perform as a unit, and it will struggle if it has to incorporate new starters year-after-year.
Everyone has high hopes for Mitchell Schwartz, but it's early days yet, and the Browns will again be changing some of the starters along the line. If we could go two years without replacing chunks of the line between seasons, I think they do, in fact, have the potential to be one of the best in the league. I hesitate to say that they're there yet.
DELCO: It's funny. The older I get and the more years I clock into this business, the more I realize while the national guys are plugged in across the league, they only skim the surface of the individual teams.
The Browns offensive line has talent. Building that offensive line isn't the sexiest route to go, but necessary. Jer-rah Jones and Dan Snyder don't get wall-to-wall ESPN coverage by drafting or signing a right guard.
I'm happy with the direction of the Browns' offensive line, which isn't something we could say around these parts too often since 1999. I just worry it came at the expense of finding that Darrin Chivarini or Kevin Johnson type player much earlier. As much as my man crush is strong for Mr. Joseph Thomas, he doesn't score touchdowns. I really love those.
DAVE KOLONICH: I'm not sure who the "national writers" are projecting the Browns' offensive line as "one of the best in the league." Perhaps the "best" criteria could be swapped for "youngest", which considering the Browns' expansion history is still substantial. Compared to endless years of patching holes with veteran gap filler, the Browns' current O-Line features nothing but "homegrown talent."
Yet, while youth is a pleasant change, the Browns' offensive line will have to rely on a rookie right tackle and two still young guards. Ideally, the thought is that Jason Pinkston and Shawn Lauvao will continue to evolve as blockers, while rookie Mitchell Schwartz provides an upgrade over a brittle Tony Pashos and over matched John St. Clair. Yet in reality, opposing defenses could continue to attack the Browns both on the outside of the tackles and over the guards.
Naturally, this improvement could be offset by the question of whether building an offensive line is still important in the NFL. We've already seen the Steelers win a Super Bowl with a dismal offensive line, yet we've also witnessed the Patriots lose one because of the same reason. Ultimately, the success of an offense's scheme does more to alleviate the need to find a Joe Thomas than anything. In a new NFL, Chad Clifton - while not recognized on an arbitrary NFL Network ranking - also saved a Packers' offensive line that was decimated by injuries simply by helping protect his team's franchise quarterback.
McBRIDE: We're really building a lot of hopes around Mitchell Schwartz. If I wasn't so familiar with the Browns previous first-through-third round offensive line failures, I'd be more optimistic.
Where did you go, Melvin Fowler?
DELCO: Melvin Fowler, you ask?
Well, according to this Flickr page - http://www.flickr.com/photos/marqueelv/5931368960/ - he "celebrated his retirement at Marquee Nightclub in Las Vegas, Nev., with special guest, actor, Craig Robinson."
I love the Internet. Oh, quick tip: Don't click through that gallery while you're at work ... or at home with the wife and kids nearby. Some of the ladies who attended his party forgot to wear their Sunday's best.
McBRIDE: What I think of whenever I see players do these sorts of things: "And now... the countdown to bankruptcy."
LANE ADKINS: A team such as the Packers I believe is an exception to the rule.
With the great weaponry and a QB in Aaron Rodgers that trusts his receivers to go after every pass, the Packers while overly successful ran into trouble late in the 2011 season due to mediocre offensive line play.
When I look at the Browns offensive line and listen to the lofty status some portrait them to be, I question why.
LT Joe Thomas is a legitimate stud, one of the best in the game.
After Thomas, I don't see a special cast of characters.
Center Alex Mack is solid and steady, he has not shown to be overly special, but being in the middle of inexperience guards making numerous mistakes, the level of play could be suffering.
The jury is out on Jason Pinkston and Shawn Lauvao. Both young and developmental talent, why is their ceiling. One can see promise in each player, but promise, potential earns a player nothing in todays NFL.
Much the same should be noted about 2nd round draft selection signings Mitchell Schwartz. Schwartz displayed at the Browns collegiate level he has the skill-set which translates to the pro-game, but again he is a rookie playing a tough position or RT.
I believe a team that is strong in the trenches, that has playmaking potential players within the scheme are the most likely to success.
With the NFL being such a QB driven league, teams such as the Patriots, Steelers and the Colts for example remain in the hunt year after year, without having significant offensive line talent.
The 49ers are a prime example of strong offensive line play and scheming to that strength.
You can also directly relate the improved size, strength, athleticism, speed/quickness of todays defensive linemen as well as scheme as another reason why most teams don't appear to have outstanding line-play.
At the present, the Browns don't fit into either offensive category.
KOLONICH: The 49ers are a nice current example and believe it or not, for four games the Browns under Eric Mangini in 2009 were also an example.
My concern is also with the guards - primarily the number of times opposing teams destroyed the Browns with "up the middle pass rushes." Of course Pinkston was getting picked on and Pat Shurmur's predictable 1993-era offense hardly helped the situation.
Nonetheless, it's still refreshing that after years of Enoch DeMar, Ross Verba and John St. Clair that the Browns actually have a homegrown collection of offensive line talent.
Which coincides with the league continuing to morph into flag football.
Again, the gold standard for this discussion is the Steelers from a few years ago, who easily paraded out the worst offensive line that any Super Bowl champion has ever produced. Yet, it really didn't matter in the end.
ADKINS: I can understand the Browns decision to address the RT position early in the draft.
The RT play was instrumental in what was an inconsistent, non-executing Browns offense.
Under the shield of Shurmur's safe play-calling, this team had strong-side help over 60% of the time, while still ineffective overall, the play took a potential weapon away from the offense.
Couple that situation with two guards that were inconsistent, its easy to see why the Browns offense is a shell if what an NFL team is.
In the midst of a youth movement in Cleveland, it'll be interesting to watch QB Brandon Weeden develop and how tight head coach Pat Shurmur's reigns are.
This itself causes me some concern.
KOLONICH: Or....the likes of Tony Pashos and O'Neil Cousins basically guaranteed Alex Smith playing time last season. This is another overlooked factor from a year ago. When fans cried about Evan Moore not getting playing time, most didn't understand that Smith had to play next to Pashos to ensure that Colt McCoy wasn't crushed on every down.
The hope is that Schwartz (again, a rookie) can handle more solo blocking duties. Perhaps then Moore - who is not a blocker - can actually get on the field occasionally.
And then watch for one four-yard dump pass after the next. Each more dangerous than the last.
FRED GREETHAM: Hey guys! Can I join in the fun? I just sat down after running most of the day and it took me a half hour to catch up through all your posts. The one thing I'll say is that Tom Heckert built the line through the draft. Of course, the two No. 1 picks were taken by Phil Savage and Eric Mangini. But for most of my adult life the Browns offensive line was built on guys picked up off waivers or the scrap heap. The only way the Browns are going to be good is if Heckert is right on his decisons, primarily in the draft. The lowest guy drafted was Pinkston in the fifth-round, so if Shawn Lauvao (3rd round) and Mitchell Schwartz (2nd round) can play, the Browns could be set for along time. All of the linemen, including Thomas are steady, lunch pail type guys. Hopefully, the faith Heckert put in the two guards is justified since they haven't re-signed Eric Steinbach. For the Browns to be relevant on offense this year, they will have to run the ball. Hence the drafting of Richardson and Schwartz. We'll see soon enough!
KOLONICH: Fred brings up a great "only in Cleveland" point that three different GM's built the Browns' current line. And to think that Phil Savage may have wanted JaMarcus Russell over Joe Thomas.
Also, I'm not sure anyone pointed out that maybe another promising lineman was found in Ryan Miller. Yet until the line solidifies, fans will clamor for the return of Eric Steinbach - which is kind of puzzling. Steinbach was in decline for the past two seasons - before his 2011 injury.
GREETHAM: I meant to mention Miller because they drafted him about as high as Pinkston. Steinbach ship has sailed to Miami.