Browns offensive line gains No. 1 rating, ready to be backbone of team success
JC Tretter can only imagine how much more fluent the Browns offensive line will be in its “unspoken language” next season.
That’s how the eight-year veteran center describes the chemistry of his position group, the backbone of the team as the Browns seek to build on their first playoff appearance in 18 years.
The Browns (12-6, 11-5 in the regular season) made several big investments, hiring highly respected position coach Bill Callahan, drafting left tackle Jedrick Wills of Alabama 10th overall and adding right tackle Jack Conklin in free agency. Right guard Wyatt Teller transformed his body, adding 16 pounds of lean mass, as noted by General Manager Andrew Berry on Friday.
The results were stunning.
Ranked 23rd in the league in 2019 by Pro Football Focus, the Browns offensive line leaped to No. 1 in 2020.
Conklin and Teller finished the regular season ranked first in the NFL at their positions, according to PFF, and Tretter was the second-highest rated center. Teller finished first among 80 qualifying guards and left guard Joel Bitonio was fifth. Among 81 qualifying offensive tackles, Conklin stood ninth and Wills 58th.
“Those guys did an amazing job all year,” Browns running back Nick Chubb said Monday on Zoom. “I know it was probably hard for them because every game like somebody new was out.
“Having to go in and adjust with all of the different communication and all of the different things that they do to be a great O-line, props to them. They were just great. They made everything happen for us.”
The Browns’ five starters missed eight games, which counted Bitonio sitting out the AFC wild-card game at Pittsburgh while on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Teller was sidelined for five games with calf and ankle injuries, and Conklin and Wills missed one each.
Testing the depth accumulated by Berry, nine different linemen started. That list included Chris Hubbard (four games at right guard, one at right tackle), Kendall Lamm (one at left tackle), Michael Dunn (one at right guard) and rookie center Nick Harris (one at right guard). Harris, Hubbard and Dunn were all placed on injured reserve before Sunday’s 22-17 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in an AFC Divisional playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium.
By the time the season ended, Berry may have longed for the four offensive linemen on the reserve/opt-out list — guards Drew Forbes, Colby Gossett and Malcolm Pridgeon and tackle Drake Dorbeck.
On Wednesday, Berry was very upbeat about the group's performance and future.
"I think you know I love my big guys, so I am very excited about this group and excited about the work they did," Berry said on Zoom. "I think that's a position group where continuity is of paramount importance. That group did a fantastic job and look forward to continuing to see them grow.”
The group’s potential excites Tretter, especially because of the growth he expects to come with continuity.
“Offensive lines always get stronger the longer they play together and the more experience they have together,” Tretter said Monday on Zoom. “There is kind of an unspoken language on the offensive line where the more reps you get with another player, the more comfortable you are and you don’t even have to say anything and you just know what the other guy is thinking.
"The longer a group can stay together and have that continuity, the better that group will play as the years go on.”
Teller is also thrilled that the starting five are all under contract for 2021.
“It’s so promising ... The success we made in this year where we were just learning the system. Any offensive lineman would say it takes years to gain continuity with the player next to you,” Teller said Tuesday on Zoom. “To see Jack and I playing at a high level in Week 1 was a testament to how many reps we took, how hard we worked during camp and what kind of coach Callahan is.
“We have great backups, great guys who start. It’s a promising offensive line and a great room to be a part of.”
Teller’s 92.9 PFF grade was a leap from 56.7 in 2019. The site pointed out that no guard received a positive grade on a higher percentage of his run-blocking snaps.
“I love the media attention and it means a lot to me,” Teller said of Pro Football Focus, which also has a big social media presence. “There is a little bit of bragging to that, but ... really what matters is what your organization and what another organization thinks about you.
“Take it with a grain of salt. Hey, it’s good pub and it does show some of the best players in the league are graded high ....”
Much of the credit for the line’s No. 1 ranking goes to Callahan, the former Oakland Raiders coach who has been in the league for 22 years. Callahan, 64, served as interim coach of the Washington Redskins in 2019 before Stefanski brought him in.
“He’s meticulous ... he’s a perfectionist,” Teller said of Callahan. “No matter how good you think you are or how good you think it was, he can see that it can be better. That makes anybody want to play better. Sometimes it’s tough, you just want to hear, ‘Hey, good job,’ but that’s how it’s going to be.
“You know that you’ve got to work so hard just to get your job done, then it’s the extra little finish, the extra little bit that springs the touchdown. He knows that little bit, head leverage, that little inch or that little angle difference is what is key. He’s a huge key to the success we had.”
Tretter mentioned how important Callahan was for the Browns run game to succeed with Chubb and Kareem Hunt.
“Bill did a great job of prepping us,” Tretter said. “A very bright guy, gets us in the right positions and is very smart on how he draws up runs and how he makes things look the same but gives different wrinkles and different motions so the defense doesn’t know what is coming.
“He’s seen everything. He’s been around a long time, and that gives you an advantage. It’s great to talk to Bill about what you’re seeing because you know he has experienced it in the past, and he will have two, three or four different ways on how to block it or how to match up against it.”
The Browns finished the regular season with the NFL’s third-ranked rushing attack (148.4 yards per game), which contributed to the offensive line's fun.
“Guys always love being able to run the ball, and being in an offense that’s centered around that, it’s always exciting for an offensive line,” Tretter said. “It’s exciting to know that we are all going to be back next year and will be able to grow together and continue to learn and get better, and hopefully continue to provide this team a run game that helps this offense and this team win.”
Even after the weariness of a pandemic-ravaged season that canceled practices and forced endless adjustments, the Browns couldn’t hide their excitement over the offensive line’s future.
“We still have room to grow, both all as individuals and as a group,” Tretter said. “We have not reached our end goal.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read more about the Browns at www.beaconjournal.com/browns. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.