Sunday, May 06, 2007

The Hole in the Donut

The "Hey, Tony!" feature in this morning's Plain Dealer contains Tony Grossi's speculation on what the Cleveland Browns offensive line will look like next season. Like most people, Grossi projects that the left side will be anchored by Joe Thomas at left tackle and Eric Steinbach at left guard. Hank Fraley's likely to remain the incumbent at center, and if Ryan Tucker returns to the right tackle slot, as most people assume he will, that leaves the right guard position as the proverbial hole in the donut.

Grossi contends that the leading candidates for this position are recent free agent acquisition Seth McKinney and current Brown Isaac Sowells. I guess if Grossi's mentioning Sowells, who spent most of last season on the inactive list, then you can probably throw Fred Matua and Rob Smith into the mix as well.

The Browns drafted Sowells in the 4th round out of Indiana last year, but he only saw action in the final game of the season against the Texans. Smith played his college ball at Tennessee and was signed as an undrafted free agent last year. Like Sowells, he didn't see any action until the Texans game, but apparently made an impression on the coaching staff. The Browns listed him as an "emerging player" in an article on the offensive line that appeared on the team's website last January. Matua was an All-American at USC who probably made a big mistake in deciding to come out a year early. He was drafted by the Lions with their 7th round pick last year, and was released before the season started. He caught on with the Titans' practice squad and was signed by the Browns in October.

The combined NFL experience of Sowells, Smith and Matua consists of a grand total of two games. Assuming that Shaffer isn't in the mix, that makes Seth McKinney a pretty prohibitive favorite to fill the right guard position. Even though he's spent most of his NFL career at center, he's an established player who, if healthy, would likely be a fairly big improvement over Cosey Coleman. The big question mark is McKinney's health. He's coming off not only back surgery, which sidelined him for the entire 2006 season, but leg surgery following an injury that landed him on injured reserve for the last three games of the 2005 season.

What about Kevin Shaffer? According to his agent, it sounds like Shaffer would rather be traded then switch positions. That smells like something that an agent jockeying for a trade would say, but in any event, my guess is that Shaffer's unlikely to go anywhere soon. Why? Because the Browns desperately need him.

It's nice to have a high profile draft pick like Joe Thomas and a big name free agent like Eric Steinbach, but the biggest problem the Browns have had on the O-line over the last eight seasons hasn't been a lack of big name players, it's been a lack of depth. This year, the Browns actually have a shot at having some depth on the line. It's nice to have some young prospects like Matua, Smith and Sowells, but I feel a lot better about this team if some experienced guys like Shaffer and Kelly Butler waiting in the wings when the injury bug inevitably bites.

If history is any guide, it's unlikely that Shaffer's going to be spending significant time on the bench this season, even assuming that he doesn't start at one of the tackle positions. But if he is asked to start out the season on the bench, Shaffer also should remember--because we sure as hell haven't forgotten--that the Browns paid him ridiculously good money to get the rights to him for seven seasons. Kevin, if your feelings are bruised by the Joe Thomas pick, fill an ice pack with some of millions that Randy Lerner parted with for you and put it on your forehead. I bet you'll feel better real soon.

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