The Cleveland Browns made the offensive line their top priority this offseason, and that began in free agency with one of the NFL’s bigger signings. New Browns right tackle Jack Conklin is set to start on the right side, replacing the much-maligned Chris Hubbard. But just how much of an upgrade will Conklin actually be?
Cleveland Browns Film Room: How much of an upgrade is Jack Conklin at right tackle?
Moving on from Chris Hubbard
In 2018, Chris Hubbard signed a five-year contract with the Browns worth over $36 million. He was a swing backup with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but had performed well when given the chance to start. He was solid in his first year with Cleveland, but 2019 was a completely different story. He graded out as one of the league’s worst starting lineman by nearly every conceivable metric, and was a big reason why quarterback Baker Mayfield’s mechanics suffered, as he just didn’t trust his line.
There was no way the Browns could afford to bring back Hubbard as a starter in 2020, even with new offensive line coach Bill Callahan in the mix. Hubbard’s contract structure made him a potential cap casualty this offseason, but his deal was reworked to significantly reduce his cap hit this season, although he’ll almost certainly be cut afterwards.
Getting Conklin at a bargain
Conklin was drafted eighth overall in 2016 by the Tennessee Titans, after they traded up with the Browns (after Cleveland had moved down from #2 with the Philadelphia Eagles). He was sensational as a rookie, earning first-team All-Pro honors. He was solid in 2017, but not quite as good as his rookie year. During Tennessee’s Divisional Round loss to the New England Patriots, Conklin suffered a torn ACL and underwent surgery.
He missed the first three games of the 2018 season, and then suffered a concussion. He eventually landed on injured reserve due to another knee injury. The Titans declined his fifth-year option over concerns about his long-term health, but Conklin rebounded to play all 16 games in 2019, putting together his best season since 2016.
Conklin’s All-Pro rookie year causes some to overrate him. He’s not an All-Pro-caliber player right now (perhaps he will become that with the Browns, who knows?), but he is certainly a top-10 right tackle, and that’s all that Cleveland needs out of him.
Many Browns fans felt uneasy about the prospects of signing Conklin, as the offensive tackle market is always expensive. In 2018, the Oakland Raiders signed Trent Brown to a four-year $66 million deal, the largest in NFL history. Even accounting for Conklin’s injury concerns, he was both younger and better than Brown was at the time of signing, so it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see him top that contract.
Instead, Conklin signed with Cleveland for $42 over three years, a modest average of $14 million per year that places him just inside the top 10 for OTs. His contract is also backloaded; his cap hit in 2020 is just $8 million, and in 2022 that will be $15 million; he’ll account for $6 million in dead space after his deal ends in 2023.
It’s a very interesting structure, one that is very similar to what the team did with Austin Hooper. It seems like general manager Andrew Berry is intent on rolling over as much cap space as possible into 2021, which seems like a smart move considering the possibility of the salary cap plummeting due to revenue losses from COVID-19.
Conklin’s 2019 performance
If you want to get excited about Conklin, just watch his Week 1 performance when he handled Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon, as good an EDGE duo as one can find.
All clips used in this article come from this thread on Conklin’s 2019 campaign. Going through the thread game by game is a great way to get a feel for Conklin as a player against different pass-rushing units.
More Garrett pic.twitter.com/A111Vw2nxR
— Sam Penix (@Sam_Penix) June 27, 2020
Bull rushed by Justin Houston pic.twitter.com/StxHNFYwjE
— Sam Penix (@Sam_Penix) June 27, 2020
Conklin can be susceptible to the bull rush. That has less to do with a lack of strength and more to do with balance issues that Callahan will hopefully be able to iron out.
Even if he doesn’t significantly improve, Conklin is still a good NFL tackle. There’s no projection involved here, because he has four years of experience. But he’s still just 25 years old and Callahan is one of the best OL coaches in history.
What a savvy veteran move. Sheard tries to split the B gap and Conklin spins and sends him tumbling pic.twitter.com/HBc7V8uWU1
— Sam Penix (@Sam_Penix) July 2, 2020
More outside zone pic.twitter.com/AW8OXuBiET
— Sam Penix (@Sam_Penix) June 30, 2020
The Titans ran a lot of outside zone with Derrick Henry, so while Conklin is not the most athletic tackle, he shouldn’t have any issues in Kevin Stefanski’s zone blocking scheme.
Another win from Jordan pic.twitter.com/16euJqwaUY
— Sam Penix (@Sam_Penix) July 7, 2020
Conklin’s worst game of the season came against the New Orleans Saints, where he struggled against Cameron Jordan. But even that game was not that bad, significantly better than Hubbard’s lows. Conklin may not be spectacular, but he’s solid, and that’s really all a lineman has to be. If he can avoid giving up game-changing pressures and hits, he’ll earn his pay.
The Titans played in three playoff games this season, facing the New England Patriots, Baltimore Ravens, and Denver Broncos. Conklin was on the field for 76 pass-blocking snaps, and gave up just three pressures. That’s the All-Pro level play he displayed in 2016, and it came on (almost) the NFL’s biggest stage against its top teams.
Bottom line on Browns right tackle Jack Conklin
Is Conklin an elite player? No. But he is good enough in both areas of the game to comfortably earn a spot in the top 10 RTs in today’s game. More importantly, he is a massive upgrade over Chris Hubbard, and will give Baker Mayfield some added peace of mind on the right side.
With the preseason seemingly eliminated and training camp still up in the air, it will be extremely beneficial for Cleveland to have an established veteran at tackle. Rookie Jedrick Wills Jr. is making the switch from right tackle to left tackle, and as good as a prospect as he is, has to be the biggest question mark on the line. Conklin actually played on the left side at Michigan State, so he’ll be another resource for Wills to glean from.
Solid is all an offensive lineman needs to be, and Conklin is exactly that. When you aren’t noticing your team’s offensive line during a game, that means they’re doing their job. Conklin will do his well.