BEREA, Ohio (AP) — The retirement of Joe Thomas left a gaping hole at left tackle for the Cleveland Browns.
Left guard Joel Bitonio is willing, but not necessarily eager to succeed his close friend at the position.
“If they want me to do that, like, cool, whatever makes the Browns better,” Bitonio said. “But I think left tackle is the toughest spot on the line, and after playing left guard for four years, going on five now, it would definitely be different.
“I don’t think it’s a thing where I have to volunteer for the spot, but if we get down the line and something needs to happen, we’ll see what happens there.”
Though Bitonio isn’t a household name outside of Cleveland, he is one of a handful of known quantities on a team that went winless in 2017 and is 1-31 in two seasons under coach Hue Jackson.
The 6-foot-4, 305-pounder was a second alternate for the Pro Bowl and did not miss a play last year, helping the Browns average 4.46 yards per rush to rank sixth in the NFL.
Offensive line coach Bob Wylie acknowledged that bumping Bitonio, an All-Mountain West left tackle at Nevada, to the outside is tempting, but not palatable because it would simultaneously create a weakness at guard.
“The state of the left tackle is our state of the union,” Wylie said. “But (moving Bitonio) is the last option. If you were going to go from A down, that would be Z. That would be Z.”
Thomas was the face of the franchise for 11 seasons, earning 10 Pro Bowl selections and playing 10,363 consecutive snaps before suffering a career-ending torn left triceps last Oct. 22 against Tennessee.
Third-year pro Shon Coleman has the first shot to fill his shoes, while second-rounder Austin Corbett and former No. 2 overall pick Greg Robinson are in the mix. Coleman was pulled off the field Sunday during practice and received an audible scolding by Jackson.
Center JC Tretter, right guard Kevin Zeitler and Bitonio each expressed hope that one of the top three candidates can win the job and keep their three-man interior unit intact.
“I’m excited to work with them again and, hopefully, be a dominant inside group,” said Bitonio, a second-round selection by Cleveland in 2014. “I’ve become really good friends with JC and Kevin, so we’re kind of bonding and I think the sky is the limit. We’re continuing to grow together.”
Tretter said the uncertainty at left tackle hasn’t affected Bitonio during training camp, nor does he expect it to, because he is a “real pro.”
Jackson wants to make a decision before the Browns’ third preseason game on Aug. 23 against the Eagles, putting Coleman on the hot seat to produce or force the staff to contemplate option Z.
“I know that Joel will do anything for the football team, but hopefully we do not have to go to that,” Jackson said. “But if we do, we do. Once we get a feel for what we have there, then as a group we’ve got to make a decision on how to continue to move forward.”
Bitonio is hoping for the best, and hoping to stay where he feels most comfortable. All 47 of his NFL games have been played as a starting left guard.
“Right now, I’m really focused on playing left guard and trying to get whoever is playing next to me ready to play left tackle,” he said. “I think anything else is something that’s pretty far down the line.”
Rookie QB Baker Mayfield impressed Jackson with several sharp passes. “Baker is deadly accurate with the ball,” the coach said. “He’s an outstanding listener who has been everything a quarterback can be for an organization so far.” . DE Myles Garrett, the top overall pick in 2017, and RB Duke Johnson were given the day off, along with LB Jamie Collins. WR Corey Coleman also was scheduled to rest, but declined the offer. . Former Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel attended the late afternoon practice.
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