Versatile lineman Bitonio trumps receivers in draft

Albuquerque, NM, USA; Nevada Wolf Pack offensive lineman Joel Bitonio (70) against the Arizona Wildcats in the 2012 New Mexico Bowl at University Stadium. 

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

BEREA, Ohio — When the Browns were on the clock at the top of the second round, many felt the team would select a wide receiver.

After the Browns passed on receivers such as Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans in the first round, there were still many of the highly rated receivers that were still on the board.

But obviously not highly rated enough by the Browns.

Compounding the facts of an impending suspension for Josh Gordon and the injury to Nate Burleson seemed to make the need of a wide receiver even more important than it was prior to the draft.

However, as general manager Ray Farmer explained after the draft, an offensive lineman — not a wide receiver — was the highest rated player on the Browns board at 35.

"Again, when you look at the number of wide receivers that were drafted and when they were drafted, I would tell you that we made the decisions that we made because we really valued the players that we got at a certain point," he said. "When, in our opinion, the most talented of that group was surpassed, we weren’t in a position to take the top-rated guys we had on our board; those guys had already been drafted. To that end, we took the players that we thought best helped our football team at different positions."

The Browns used that pick to take Joel Bitonio.

Bitonio (6-4, 305) seems to be exactly the type of offensive lineman that offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan wants in his zone-blocking scheme. Bitonio blocked for Colin Kaepernick when he was the quarterback at Nevada.

Bitonio played offensive tackle in college, but he said he’s been working at guard so far with the Browns. There’s a good chance Bitonio will start at one of the offensive line positions.

"So far inside I’ve been playing inside both (sides), mixing it up," he said at the recently concluded rookie minicamp.

Bitonio played some center in high school and even took some snaps at center at the Senior Bowl.

Farmer says the fact that Bitonio is so versatile is invaluable to the Browns.

"The great thing about Joel is that he has position versatility," Farmer said. "He’s a guy we think can play all five spots. We’ll get him here and see what the best spot is for him. It’s likely at guard, but when you talk about ‘Play Like a Brown’ and what we’re looking for in an offensive lineman, he truly embodies that. We wanted to upgrade our toughness, our nastiness and that’s one of the things that jumps off the tape when he plays."

Bitonio says he prides himself on his toughness. His father was a MMA-style fighter back in his younger days and Joel said he picked up his toughness from his father.

"I like to play hard," he said. "Football is played to the whistle and you have to play as hard as you can every snap. If you can play that hard every play, then there’s a good chance that if you’re equally talented and use your technique well, you’ll be able to beat the guy you’re going against. I want to play as hard as I possibly can. I know the AFC North is a tough, hard-nosed division, and I hope I can a little bit of that to the team."

Bitonio is trying to learn and soak up as much as he can by the veterans such as Pro Bowl performers Joe Thomas and Alex Mack. He’ll likely be playing next to at least one of them and could play between the pair. Bitonio said he’s followed Thomas’ career.

"Following professional football, I know (Joe’s) one of the best linemen in the NFL, and just having someone like that is going to be a great benefit," he said. "As a mentor on and off the field and just watching him play on an everyday basis, being able to watch practice film and seeing what he does, I think that’s a great way to learn as a player. To see that these guys are great players in front of you and to see that and to be able to learn from him will be an amazing opportunity."

Bitonio said he’s already been able to start working with the veterans since joining the Browns.

"We’ve been working with (the veterans) in the mornings," he said. "We’ve been working with them and the coaches on our techniques."

It’s all been a whirlwind for all the players just drafted.

"It’s gone unbelievably fast," he said. "You get drafted and next day you’re here. You’re in meetings, working on techniques. It’s almost been a camp atmosphere for the young guys. They are trying to get us caught up."

Bitonio said he’s getting used to having football as his job.

"In college, you have to go to school," he said. "Here, this is your job, your profession. I think that was the goal of all of us that are here. That’s not too bad, I get to play football every day."

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