The Cleveland Browns must determine whether or not Baker Mayfield is a franchise quarterback (hint: he is, and he’ll prove it in 2020). However, in order to do that, the team needed to make sure that Mayfield was protected well and made the offensive line their top priority this offseason. They signed a high-priced free agent and drafted a rookie 10th overall. How will the unit fare in 2020, and will Mayfield feel more comfortable in the pocket than he did in 2019? Let’s take a look at the Browns offensive tackles in 2020.
Browns Training Camp Preview: Cleveland’s offensive tackles in 2020
Improving at OT was a priority for new general manager Andrew Berry
Former GM John Dorsey’s plan at offensive tackle in 2018 was… interesting. With future Hall of Famer Joe Thomas retired, Dorsey signed former St. Louis Rams bust Greg Robinson and brought in undrafted free agent Desmond Harrison out of West Georgia. He also signed former Pittsburgh Steelers versatile guard and tackle Chris Hubbard to a five-year $36.5 million contract.
Harrison had legitimate NFL talent, but off-field issues got him kicked off the Texas Longhorns football team, and he ended up at D-II West Georgia. Despite his complete lack of film against quality competition and his subpar play strength, Harrison was the Week 1 starter at left tackle and remained the starter through eight games. He had flashes of talent but struggled overall. Harrison was replaced by Robinson, who had the best eight games of his career, although that was not a high bar to clear. Hubbard played OK; he wasn’t great but wasn’t bad either. He was good enough.
Things changed in 2019; Robinson was solid, but Hubbard took a significant step back. The Browns allowed a total of 29 sacks and 177 pressures in 2018, which included the 2.5 games that Tyrod Taylor played, and the fantastic stretch that the offensive line put together over the second half of the year. In 2019, those numbers jumped to 34 and 204. That may not seem like a massive increase throughout 16 games, but it is significant. The sacks always seemed to come at the worst time as well.
The Browns needed to help Mayfield feel comfortable
Mayfield never seemed comfortable. It never appeared as if he fully trusted his line, and his performance suffered because of that, even when he wasn’t pressured. His throwing mechanics were broken; he stopped stepping up into the pocket and into his throws, and started to shorten his plant and contort his body, leading to him missing badly on passes he should have been making routinely.
Andrew Berry prioritized upgrading at both tackle spots. While both Harrison and Robinson are out of the league (not a surprise given Dorsey’s history with judging players’ characters), Hubbard is still with the team, albeit on a renegotiated contract. He will likely end up being cut to save cap space in 2021, but in the meantime, he will serve as a backup. There are two new starters on the line, and two reasons for fans to be excited.
Who are the new faces in Cleveland?
Rookie Jedrick Wills Jr. faces a significant challenge
Wills was an excellent right tackle for the Alabama Crimson Tide. He had been a dominant run blocker in 2018 but took a huge step forward in pass protection last season. He is stoutly built, extremely strong, and very athletic. His arm length is not ideal, but it’s long enough that he shouldn’t have any issues.
Moving to the left side is a difficult transition, and there were going to be growing pains with Wills, even before the difficulties of the current situation in the NFL. Wills no longer has the benefit of the preseason, which means he’s lost plenty of essential reps. Those difficulties mean we may not see Wills be at the top of his game immediately, as with many rookies who get a chance to play in the preseason. However, Wills has the physical ability to develop into one of the NFL’s premier tackles.
Jack Conklin is ready to live up to a massive contract
Conklin signed a three-year $42 million deal with the Browns, which, while still a lot of money, was less than many were expecting Conklin to receive. He is not an elite tackle, as some make him out to be due to his All-Pro rookie season (injuries have slowed him since), but he’s a top-10 right tackle today and presents a significant upgrade over Hubbard.
Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon know first-hand how good Conklin can be, and Mayfield will love having his presence in front of him. Conklin came into the NFL with elite athleticism, but that does not always show up in his play, which is perhaps a result of his injuries. However, he played a lot of wide-zone with the Tennessee Titans and blocked for the league’s rushing leader, Derrick Henry, last year. He should provide an immediate upgrade in both aspects of the offense for the Browns.
Who are the offensive tackles competing for the final roster spots in 2020?
Kendall Lamm is an excellent backup when healthy
A starter for the Houston Texans in 2018, Lamm struggles in the run game but is a solid pass blocker. He only saw action in three games last year due to injuries but is more than worth keeping around. He can play either tackle spot, and versatility is always a positive. He will likely be the primary backup at LT, while Hubbard takes the right side if something were to happen to Conklin.
Hubbard moves back to the swing-role, where he’s had success previously
As discussed, Hubbard struggled mightily in 2019, finishing the season as one of the league’s worst starting tackles. He will move to the bench this year, and could potentially compete for time at right guard, as Cleveland is very thin on the interior of the offensive line inside. With the likes of Drew Forbes, Drake Dorbeck, Colby Gossett, and Malcom Pridgeon opting out of the 2020 season, there is an opportunity for Hubbard to see the field.
However, Hubbard hasn’t seen time at guard since 2015 and has all of eight career snaps at the position, so it’s unrealistic to count on him there immediately. The Browns need someone to step up there, and if there are injuries or inconsistent play, then Hubbard could find himself called into action.
Alex Taylor is a tailor-made developmental prospect
An undrafted free agent from South Carolina State, Taylor is in a similar position as Harrison was in 2018, except Taylor is younger, has no character concerns, and will not be forced into action early. He wasn’t a great player in college, even against subpar competition, but his physical traits are tantalizing.
Taylor is a good athlete and is listed at 6-8 301 pounds. He looks built in a lab having been designed to play in Kevin Stefanski’s wide zone scheme, and perhaps he’ll have the chance to a few years down the line. He seems like the perfect practice squad candidate; that is if another team doesn’t claim him off waivers.
Offensive tackle improvement could be the key to success in 2020
There have been a lot of changes in Cleveland over the past year, and the offensive tackles are just one of those, although the two new starters will have a considerable impact. Things may be a bit rocky at first, but the group as a whole should mesh and provide Mayfield with better protection, and that’s to say nothing of the holes they will be able to open for running back Nick Chubb. NFL games are won in the trenches, and the Browns realized that. Their substantial investments in the line should pay off big.