Joel Bitonio

AFC North Notes: Browns, Okorafor, Bengals

Rumored to be a potential option to succeed Joe Thomas at left tackle, Joel Bitonio‘s heard an important voice that doesn’t believe this is a good idea. As a result, the Browns‘ post-Thomas battle is likely to come down to third-year player Shon Coleman, last season’s full-time right tackle, second-round pick Austin Corbett and possibly former No. 2 overall pick Greg Robinson.

He is an elite guard, one of the top 4-5 in the league,” Browns offensive line coach Bob Wylie said of Bitonio, via Terry Pluto of cleveland.com. “You put him at tackle and he becomes … what … just a tackle.”

Although Corbett succeeded Bitonio as Nevada’s left tackle and started for four years, he’s a bit behind Coleman for the job at present, Wylie said. The Browns, though, also signed Robinson this week and view him as a reclamation project. Not unlike other teams who have taken chances on underwhelming high draft picks, the Browns believe Robinson has “freakish” athletic ability and believe with proper coaching he can grow into a solid blocker, Pluto notes. In 395 snaps with the Lions last season, the former Auburn standout graded as Pro Football Focus’ fourth-worst full-time tackle.

Here’s the latest from some of the Browns’ top rivals.

  • The Bengals are set on the left side of their offensive line, with Cordy Glenn, Clint Boling and Billy Price entrenched as starters. With 2015 high draft picks Jake Fisher and Cedric Ogbuehi, along with Giants castoff Bobby Hart, involved in the right tackle competition, Cincinnati perhaps has less certainty about who will play right guard. Former UDFAs Trey Hopkins and Alex Redmond, and 2016 fifth-rounder Christian Westerman, are going to vie for that spot, Jim Owczarski of the Cincinnati Enquirer notes. PFF’s No. 41 tackle in 2017, Hopkins is the incumbent, playing 707 snaps last season and starting 12 games.
  • Continuing this afternoon’s theme of AFC North offensive lines, the Steelers appear to be close to slotting Chukwuma Okorafor as the swing tackle behind Alejandro Villanueva and Marcus Gilbert. The Steelers may be leaning toward placing Matt Feiler in as a backup interior lineman, Tim Benz of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review writes. A third-round pick, Okorafor would then be in line to replace Chris Hubbard, the new Browns right tackle, in that swing job. “Chuks, we drafted that guy for that reason,” Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak said. “Now the young guy gets a chance kind of like Al a few years ago. And last year, Chris Hubbard got the opportunity with Marcus out. We’ve got a lot of time to work with him. Right now, that’s our guy going forward.” Gilbert’s contract expires after the 2019 season, and although Ben Roethlisberger would prefer he be re-signed in advance of his walk year, the high-end right tackle has dealt with injuries and a suspension in recent years and will be 31 in February.
  • While it’s unlikely Jordan Dangerfield will be able to keep first-round pick Terrell Edmunds off the field, he exited the Steelers’ offseason program as a first-string safety, per Joe Rutter of the Tribune-Review. Morgan Burnett missed minicamp because of an injury Mike Tomlin deemed minor. Edmunds ran with the second-team defense but is expected to get looks at safety and linebacker for a Steelers team that was deficient at those spots at the end of last season. Dangerfield is a fifth-year player who hasn’t seen action since 2016.

North Notes: Bears, Browns, Ragnow

Fans of another Midwestern team will recognize much of what the 2018 Bears‘ offense looks like. Matt Nagy said, via Dan Pompei of The Athletic (subscription required) the Bears’ offense will be 70-80 percent the same as what the Chiefs run under Andy Reid.

It will be different in some regards, which is only fair to our coaches on offense and the ideas they have,” Nagy said. “But the identity is going to be the same. It will feel very similar to Kansas City’s. We’re in the lab now. That’s the fun part. All the coaches are giving their ideas and thoughts. Coach [Reid] always said he had 51 percent of the say. So ultimately, he had final say. Now I have that. There are plays I liked that Coach [Reid] didn’t like, so now those plays are in.

Reid and Nagy each had roles as the Chiefs’ primary play-caller during the pair’s two years working in an HC-OC relationship, with Nagy’s shift toward play-calling responsibilities coinciding with Kansas City’s late-season charge toward a second straight AFC West title. He’ll attempt to replicate that with the Bears.

With OTAs continuing for some and minicamps starting elsewhere this week, here’s the latest from the North divisions.

  • The Browns believe Mychal Kendricks can play all three linebacker positions, per Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal. Lining up the ex-Eagles starter — who is set to sign with the Browns on Monday — in the middle would give him the best chance of starting, with Jamie Collins and Christian Kirksey on the outside. However, Joe Schobert started all 16 Browns games as the middle linebacker and was the top-rated (per Pro Football Focus) Browns ‘backer last season. Kendricks was unhappy with his role with the Eagles, but in Cleveland, the Browns’ recent futility notwithstanding, he’s going to be playing with a deeper group of linebackers. A three-down role won’t be guaranteed. Of course, the previous Browns regime re-signed Collins and extended Kirksey, which could complicate matters a bit as John Dorsey steps into his first full season with the franchise.
  • Also in Cleveland, Browns coaches are high on Duke Johnson, despite the team signing Carlos Hyde and drafting Nick Chubb, and Mary Kay Cabot of cleveland.com envisions an extension coming to fruition this offseason. The Browns have nearly $70MM in cap space, and Johnson would seemingly fit alongside either Hyde or Chubb as a passing-down back. The sides have been discussing a re-up for a bit now.
  • Despite being open to Joel Bitonio as Joe Thomas‘ replacement, the Browns kept him at left guard at OTAs this week, per Terry Pluto of cleveland.com. Bitonio would prefer to stay at guard, and the Browns — who drafted Austin Corbett, Bitonio’s left tackle successor at Nevada — in Round 2. Corbett is currently working behind Shon Coleman at left tackle.
  • On the subject of rookie offensive linemen’s roles, the Lions have begun first-round pick Frank Ragnow‘s tenure at guard, Kyle Meinke of MLive.com notes, adding he took some first-team reps at that spot. This is interesting considering Graham Glasgow played well at guard last season. The Lions have T.J. Lang entrenched at the other guard slot and signed ex-Jets center Wesley Johnson. However, Detroit’s discussed the notion of moving Glasgow to center. Ragnow played center for all but one game as an upperclassman but started throughout his sophomore season at guard for Arkansas.
  • Tyler Matakevich underwent surgery to repair three areas — his rotator cuff, labrum and a biceps muscle — repaired shortly after the Steelers‘ divisional-round loss to the Jaguars. And the Steelers subsequently signed Jon Bostic, seemingly to replace Ryan Shazier this season. However, Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review notes Matakevich was the first-string inside linebacker alongside Vince Williams throughout OTAs this week. While this situation is likely far from being settled, the Steelers holding a competition between a 2016 seventh-round pick and a sixth-year veteran who started 14 games last season is interesting.

AFC North Notes: Jackson, Browns, Steelers

It didn’t take the Ravens long to start implementing some unique Lamar Jackson-centric packages. But instead of lining the first-round pick up at quarterback in a wildcat-type look during their rookie minicamp, Mike Jones of USA Today notes that Jackson was playing different positions around the formation in a 1995 Kordell Stewart fashion. It’s clear the Ravens, who do not plan to move him to another position long-term, have designs on getting their unique weapon onto the field early.

We do it in the laboratory. Obviously, we’ve had coaches who have had a lot of experience with that, so that’s helpful to us,” John Harbaugh said this week. “We do it on the practice field. We ran a lot of stuff out here today you guys probably saw. We’re going to always try to get our players making plays for us, and Lamar is a guy that can help us win games.”

OC Marty Mornhinweg served as assistant Eagles HC during Andy Reid‘s final Philadelphia years, when the team coaxed electric play from Michael Vick. While Vick eventually supplanted Donovan McNabb, he initially returned to the field in special packages while McNabb started. Jones notes Joe Flacco‘s attitude toward the Ravens’ usage of Tyrod Taylor in wildcat formations was not exactly positive when the team tried this years ago. However, Jones writes the Ravens do not have a defined timetable for when Jackson will make a legitimate push to usurp Flacco.

Here’s the latest from some of the Ravens’ top rivals:

  • Corey Coleman was not believed to be on the trade block during the draft, but Mary Kay Cabot of cleveland.com reports the Browns haven’t been pleased with the 2016 first-round pick. They’ve called for the Baylor product to elevate his work ethic and production. Twice missing extensive time due to hand breaks, Coleman has not lived up to his No. 15 draft slot. And now that a new regime is calling the shots, one that drafted Antonio Callaway in the fourth round last month, Cabot notes Coleman could become expendable.
  • Additionally, the Browns are open to Joel Bitonio replacing Joe Thomas at left tackle, per Cabot. However, the main plan remains to try second-round pick Austin Corbett there. Corbett replaced Bitonio as Nevada’s left tackle in 2014 and started four years there for the Wolf Pack. Both Bitonio, a well-paid guard, and Corbett are almost certainly going to start for the Browns this season, Cabot writes. It’s just unclear where. This would make 2017 right tackle starter Shon Coleman a swing player, with Chris Hubbard set to man the right tackle job.
  • The Steelers‘ draft was too light on defensive help, Paul Zeise of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writes. In particular, Zeise zeroes in on Pittsburgh’s third-round Mason Rudolph pick — one he calls a wasted selection because it may do nothing to help the team capitalize on its closing championship window. Ben Roethlisberger made this point earlier this week, and with the Steelers taking more of an upside project in Round 1 in safety Terrell Edmunds and wideout James Washington in Round 2, Zeise writes that the franchise should have devoted a bit more help to its needs on defense as Roethlisberger’s career winds down.
  • In a series detailing every team’s biggest post-draft issue, ESPN.com’s Charles McDonald writes (Insider link) the edge-rushing group sits as the Steelers’ trouble spot. Despite the Steelers leading the NFL with 56 sacks in 2017, and housing upper-echelon defensive ends in Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, McDonald writes Bud Dupree‘s inconsistency and the lack of depth at this spot could pose a problem for the defending AFC North champs.

North Notes: Bengals, Matthews, Bears

Now that quarterback A.J. McCarron has been granted unrestricted free agent status, there’s essentially no chance the Bengals will seek to re-sign him for the 2018 season. Cincinnati will likely collect a compensatory draft pick in 2019 as a result of losing McCarron, but the Bengals need to solidify their backup quarterback position in the near-term, as Jim Owczarski of the Cincinnati Enquirer writes. With starter Andy Dalton locked up through the 2020 campaign, the Bengals could add a developmental signal-caller — as they did when selecting McCarron in the fifth round of the 2014 draft — or ink a veteran backup.

At present, 2016 sixth-rounder Jeff Driskel is Cincinnati’s No. 2 quarterback, but it’s unclear if the Bengals will trust Driskel to serve as Dalton’s backup next year. Per Owczarski, the Bengals asked Driskel to take practice reps at wide receiver heading into their 2017 regular-season finale. Driskel did so, but broke his left arm making a leaping, one-handed catch. He’s undergone surgery, and should be ready for offseason workouts in April.

Here’s more from the NFL’s two North divisions:

  • While veteran defender Clay Matthews has been viewed as a potential candidate for release, the Packers and new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine could see enough value in Matthews to stave off a parting of ways, according to Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com. “When you can move guys around and trade jobs, not just within game but week to week, because a big part of offense is identifying who the rushers are and what positions they’re playing,” said Pettine in discussing Matthews’ ability to play inside and outside linebacker. “When you have guys like that, the creative part, you can do a lot more with those players.” Matthews ranked as the league’s No. 27 edge defender in 2017, per Pro Football Focus, which assigned the 31-year-old his highest grade since 2012. The Packers could clear the entirety of Matthews’ ~$11.369MM cap charge by cutting him this offseason.
  • A number of key Bears players have roster bonuses and guarantees due on March 16, reports Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune. While defensive end Akiem Hicks ($3MM bonus), guard Kyle Long ($5MM bonus), and tackle Bobby Massie ($1MM bonus) are likely to be retained, the same can’t be said for several other veterans. Tight end Dion Sims, cornerback Marcus Cooper, linebacker Willie Young, safety Quintin Demps, and quarterback Mike Glennon will be due guarantees or bonuses in mid-March, meaning Chicago will have to make decisions on their respective fates. The Bears currently rank 11th in 2018 salary cap space with more than $41MM available, but the club could increase that figure to greater than $70MM by releasing Sims et al.
  • Don’t expect the Browns to shift left guard Joel Bitonio to left tackle if Joe Thomas does indeed retire this offseason, according to Tony Grossi of ESPN Cleveland (Twitter link). Bitonio started all 16 games at left guard for the Browns last season. He does have experience at left tackle, though. Bitonio played left tackle at Nevada before being taken by the Browns with the 35th overall pick of the 2014 draft. Thomas is still undecided on if he’ll return in 2018 after missing the first nine games of his 11-year career last season.
  • In case you missed it, the Vikings recently hired former Raiders offensive coordinator Todd Downing as a senior offensive assistant. Downing, 37, is a Minnesota native, and will be joining ex-Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo as new additions to the Vikings’ offensive staff.

Ryan Posner contributed to this report.

Contract Details: Jones, Taylor, Branch, D-Jax, Bitonio, Davis

Here’s the latest on some of the latest contracts agreed to this week.

  • Chandler Jonesfive-year Cardinals extension will pay him $16.5MM per year, Albert Breer of TheMMQB.com tweets. Jones will make $53MM in guaranteed money from his second NFL contract, Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports adds (on Twitter).
  • Tyrod Taylor‘s restructured Bills deal is a two-year, $30.5MM pact, La Canfora reports (on Twitter), adding that the rest of it voids after 2018. Taylor will make $15.5MM in guarantees as a result of the re-done pact and $14.5MM in 2017. La Canfora adds the quarterback stands to collect $16MM in ’18.
  • Andre Branch‘s three-year Dolphins deal is worth $24MM, Ben Volin of the Boston Globe reports (on Twitter). Volin adds the contract includes two fully guaranteed years– at $17MM — for the 27-year-old pass-rusher. Volin adds that Branch could see $3.75MM more via incentives. Branch will receive a $6MM signing bonus, make $2.9MM in base salary in 2017, $7.9MM in ’18 and $6.9MM in ’19, per Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle (on Twitter).
  • DeSean Jackson‘s Buccaneers pact will be worth approximately $11MM per year, Jenna Laine of ESPN.com reports.
  • Joel Bitonio‘s five-year Browns extension will pay out $47.5MM in base salary, Nate Ulrich of Ohio.com tweets, adding $23MM in guarantees are included. The new deal kicks in after Bitonio’s 2017 season, so he’s under contract in Cleveland through 2022.
  • Vernon Davis‘ second Redskins contract will include a $4MM signing bonus and $7.5MM guaranteed, Wilson tweets. His base salaries from 2017-19, respectively, are $2MM, $3.75MM and $4.75MM.
  • Courtney Upshaw re-signing with the Falcons on a one-year deal will result in $1.15MM coming his way in 2017, Wilson tweets. The defender gets a $125K signing bonus and will make $775K in base salary this season.

Browns, G Joel Bitonio Agree To Extension

The Browns are signing guard Joel Bitonio to a “monster” extension, a source tells Adam Schefter of ESPN.com (on Twitter). Bitonio doesn’t turn 26 until October and he is among the league’s most talented interior linemen when healthy.

Schefter reports Bitonio’s deal is for five years and worth $51MM (Twitter link), meaning the NFL now has four guards who make $10MM per year. That list is expected to expand soon once Kevin Zeitler makes a decision on his landing spot. Bitonio’s contract will include $23MM in guaranteed money. The 25-year-old Bitonio will join Kelechi Osemele, Kyle Long and David DeCastro in the eight-figure-AAV guard club.

Last year, Bitonio appeared in only five games due to injury. In the year prior, he played in only 10 contests. However, in his rookie year, he was present for all 16 games and finished out with a strong 87.8 overall score on Pro Football Focus. This year, that mark would have placed him in the top five amongst all guards, ahead of Osemele, Richie Incognito, Zeitler, T.J. Lang, DeCastro, and other notables.

Bitonio helped the Browns compensate for the departures of standout free agents Mitchell Schwartz and Alex Mack last season, and although Cleveland went 1-15, its offensive front wasn’t devoid of talent. The Browns over the past several years have been able to develop quality blockers, and they’ve decided to invest in Bitonio to team with Joe Thomas in his NFL twilight years. The former second-round pick had one year left on his rookie contract.

This could impact the Browns’ pursuit of Zeitler, although they could use both at guard and could afford each. Veteran John Greco started at right guard last season, but he also ventured to IR to end the 2016 slate. Cleveland and New Orleans are believed to be the Zeitler finalists.

Sam Robinson contributed to this report.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Browns G Joel Bitonio Done For Season

Browns guard Joel Bitonio had surgery on Monday to repair the Lisfrance injury in his right foot, ESPN.com’s Pat McManamon tweets. The surgery rules Bitonio out for the 2016 season but he should be able to take part in all of the team’s offseason work prior to the 2017 season. Joel Bitonio (vertical)

Bitonio was placed formally placed on IR last week. A late-season return was on the table thanks to the new IR rules, but it’s not possible now after the offensive lineman went under the knife. Of course, when your team is winless through six games, there’s not much incentive to rush back and risk further injury.

In other Browns news, safety Jordan Poyer has been placed on IR, per a team announcement. Taking his place will be fellow safety Ed Reynolds who was promoted from the practice squad. Poyer suffered a lacerated kidney against the Titans on Sunday and had to be transported to a hospital before halftime. Through six games, Poyer recorded 37 tackles, matching his career high set in 2015.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Browns Place Joel Bitonio On IR

The Browns have placed left guard Joel Bitonio on injured reserve with a mid-foot sprain, as Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com tweets. To take his place on the roster, fullback Dan Vitale has been signed off of the Buccaneers’ practice squad (link). Joel Bitonio (vertical)

Bitonio’s injury is likely season-ending, though the new IR rules could technically allow for him to return. If Bitonio was to come back, he would not be eligible to play for another eight weeks.

Last year, Bitonio was placed on IR in December when an ankle injury forced him out of action. He was rated as the No. 33 guard in the NFL by Pro Football Focus when he was shut down last year. This year, through five games, PFF rated him as the ninth-best guard in the league (tied with Mike Iupati of the Cardinals). In 2016, he earned an overall grade of 83.3 with roughly even scores for his pass blocking and run blocking.

Vitale was a sixth-round pick of the Bucs this year. At Northwestern, Vitale racked up 135 catches for 1,427 receiving yards from 2012-15. He only carries the ball six times in college.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Browns OL Joel Bitonio To Miss Time

Browns guard Joel Bitonio has a mid-foot injury and will be out for an extended period of time, Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com tweets. Bitonio has been playing through the injury for some time, but that has only exacerbated the issue. Joel Bitonio (vertical)

Last year, Bitonio was placed on IR in December when an ankle injury forced him out of action. He was rated as the No. 33 guard in the NFL by Pro Football Focus when he was shut down last year. This year, through five games, PFF has him rated as the ninth-best guard in the league. He has earned an overall grade of 83.3 with roughly even scores for his pass blocking and run blocking.

The Browns have had terrible luck with injuries so far this season and Bitonio is just the latest starter to go down. It remains to be seen how long the 25-year-old will be sidelined for.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Browns Place Joel Bitonio On IR

The Browns absorbed another blow in a grueling season, placing starting left guard Joel Bitonio on injured reserve, Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle reports (on Twitter).

In a corresponding roster move, the team claimed second-year center Gabe Ikard after the Bills cut him.

A 2014 second-round pick, Bitonio attempted to make a return from an ankle injury that sidelined him for the Browns’ previous two games but couldn’t make it past the first quarter before leaving the game. First-rounder Cameron Erving replaced him but was quickly benched in favor of UDFA Austin Pasztor.

The 24-year-old Bitonio started the first 26 games of his career. Pro Football Focus rated the former Nevada lineman as its 33rd-best guard this season after he enjoyed a standout rookie campaign.

Bitonio remains a critical part of the Browns’ future, with Pro Bowl center Alex Mack able to opt out of his Jaguars-created contract at the end of this season.