Browns have two Pro Bowl O-linemen, could lose one
Editor’s note: Browns beat reporter Fred Greetham will break down the Browns roster on a position-by-position basis, with the fifth part looking at the offensive line position.
Offensive Linemen – (Joe Thomas, John Greco, Alex Mack, Shawn Lauvao, Jason Pinkston, Mitchell Schwartz, Oniel Cousins, Garrett Gilkey, Reid Fragel, Martin Wallace, Chris Faulk and Jeremiah Warren)
Thomas (6-6, 312, 29) — Thomas just finished his seventh season with the Browns, all ending in being named to the Pro Bowl. Thomas has remarkably not missed a snap since being the third overall choice in the 2007 NFL Draft.
Greco (6-4, 315, 28) — Greco was signed to a contract extension prior to the season, clearly showing the Browns commitment to him. He started 13 games at left guard before missing two games with an injured knee. Greco returned to play in the season finale and filled in at right guard when Lauvao and Pinkston were injured.
Mack (6-4, 311, 28) — Mack completed his fifth season with the Browns and he was named to the Pro Bowl for the second time. Mack, like Thomas, has not missed a snap since being drafted in the first-round of the 2009 NFL Draft. Mack becomes an unrestricted free agent in March and if the Browns don’t re-sign him before that they will likely have to find a replacement through the draft, free agency or from one of the younger players on the roster.
Lauvao (6-3, 315, 26) — Lauvao completed his fourth season and started 11 games at right guard. He was inactive for five games with an ankle injury and a thigh injury. Lauvao is an unrestricted free agent and it’s uncertain if the Browns will try to re-sign him.
Pinkston (6-4, 305, 26) — Pinkston returned after a life-threatening blood clot in his lung, which sidelined him for the final 10 games of the 2012 season. Pinkston suffered a high ankle sprain in the preseason and was on injured reserve for the first half of the season. He ended up playing in three games with two starts before suffering a concussion that kept him out to end the season.
Schwartz (6-5, 320, 24) — Schwartz all 16 games at right tackle for the second-straight season after being drafted in the second-round of the 2012 NFL Draft. Schwartz struggled early in the season, but played much better in the second half of the season. It is unclear the true feelings of the front office on Schwartz. With the stockpile of young linemen, they might try to replace Schwartz with Faulk or through the draft.
Cousins (6-4, 315, 29) — Cousins finished his third season with the Browns and played in all 16 games. He started four games at right guard to open the season while Lauvao and Pinkston were injured. It is likely one of the young linemen the Browns kept will fill Cousins’ role as a backup.
Gilkey (6-6, 320, 23) — Gilkey was the only offensive linemen drafted by the current front office and he was on the active roster all season. Gilkey was active for six games and started the season finale against the Steelers at left guard. The front office has high hopes for Gilkey and he might be targeted to play one of the guard positions. In the season finale, Gilkey was moved to left guard and Greco to right guard, a possible preview of next season.
Fragel (6-8, 305, 22) — Fragel was a rookie signed off the Bengals practice squad and was inactive for the final seven games. The former Ohio State lineman is a player the team is hoping to develop.
Wallace (6-6, 305, 23) — Wallace was on the roster all season and was inactive for 15 games. An undrafted rookie free agent signed by the Browns after the draft.
Faulk (6-6, 330, 24) — Faulk was an undrafted rookie free agent signed by the Browns after the draft and was on the Reserve/Non-Football injury list since Aug. 27. The former LSU tackle was projected to be a first-round draft choice until suffering an ACL injury in his final year at LSU. He is a player the Browns stashed all season and have high hopes he will be able to return and play at a high level.
Warren (6-4, 320, 26) — Was signed to the practice squad and finished the season there for the Browns.
Summary: The good news is the Browns had Pro Bowl players accounting for 40 percent of their starting offensive line with Thomas and Mack. Thomas has been a rock at left tackle for seven seasons. However, Mack will be an unrestricted free agent in March if the Browns don’t re-sign him prior to that. It is unlikely they would franchise him because franchise players get the average salary of the top five offensive linemen, including left tackles, which is generally some of the highest paid players in the NFL.
Mack has intimated that he would like to return to the Browns, but it is unsure if the Browns plan to re-sign him. Besides the uncertainty with Mack, it is unclear if the Browns intend to replace Schwartz at right tackle. Faulk is an intriguing prospect, but it is unknown if he will fully recover from is torn ACL that caused him to not get drafted last April.
At guard, it is likely the Browns are committed to Greco by virtue of the four-year extension they made to him last year. Lauvao is an unrestricted free agent and Pinkston is still under contract. They drafted Gilkey last year and it is expected he will be in the mix for a starting guard spot if he continues his development this off-season.
Curiously, the Browns collected a lot of young offensive linemen last season like Faulk, Wallace, Fragel, Gilkey and Warren. They also had Patrick Lewis, who was signed to the Jaguars’ active roster and Caylin Hauptmann, who was signed to the Seahawks active roster.
There is a reason they kept so many offensive linemen and it could be their plan to cut costs with Mack, Schwartz and Lauvao and go with the players kept this season.
Looking Ahead: On the surface it would appear the Browns have a good, young group of offensive linemen. However, if they choose to let Mack leave, they would’ve created a major hole in the center of the line, which they would need to fill. Greco was listed as the backup center to Mack by the end of the season.
It is hard to understand why the Browns would create a hole in the line by letting one of their Pro Bowl players leave via free agency–especially since he is just 28 and entering his prime.
The Browns also have to decide what they are going to do with Schwartz and the guard position opposite of Greco. They could use a high draft pick to draft a center or tackle or sign one in free agency. They could stay with Schwartz or let him battle with Faulk for the right tackle spot.
The great mystery is what value does the front office place on Mack, Schwartz and the others. The prior front office had Lauvao and Pinkston as the starters and Greco was the backup guard. The current front office gave Greco a contract extension and Lauvao and Pinkston battled for the other guard position.
(Next we will start our look at the defense and the defensive line)