Last season, both of the Cleveland Browns’ bookends ranked outside the top 40 among offensive tackles in pass block win rate.
Next season, that should change in a big away.
In last week’s NFL draft, Cleveland completed a remarkable offseason transformation to the ends of its offensive line, using the 10th pick on Alabama’s Jedrick Wills Jr. The Browns already had signed the top right tackle on the free-agent market in Jack Conklin. Landing Wills gave them arguably the top blindside-protector prospect in the draft, as well.
Suddenly, quarterback Baker Mayfield could be playing in front of the most improved offensive line in the NFL, assuming Conklin, stalwart center JC Tretter and Pro Bowl left guard Joel Bitonio come close to matching their 2019 performance level. And, perhaps most importantly, should Wills live up to his high billing.
“I want [Mayfield] to know that I got his back,” Wills said after going to the Browns on the first night of the draft. “That’s something that I take pride in, and I hate losing, so [I] let him know he’s got someone on his hands who’s going to do everything they can to protect him.”
If that happens, the new Browns front office will have filled its biggest hole on the roster going into the offseason.
Last year, former No. 2 overall pick Greg Robinson, who joined the Browns two years ago, proved to be among the worst starting left tackles in the league. He was briefly benched for one week in the middle of the season. But when he returned to the starting lineup the following week, he didn’t fare much better and wound up ranking 46th among starting tackles in pass block win rate. In part as a result, Mayfield was sacked more often per passing attempt than any other AFC quarterback.
“I like the idea that we added two really smart, tough, versatile football players that will make us better,” new coach Kevin Stefanski said of Wills and Conklin. “I am confident that the coaches will put them in position to succeed.”
Wills played a major role in quarterback Tua Tagovailoa succeeding at Alabama. Wills manned right tackle the past two seasons to protect the blindside of the left-handed Tagovailoa. And even though Tagovailoa played just nine games last season due to a hip injury, the Crimson Tide surrendered only two sacks all year from the right side, the fifth fewest in the FBS, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. They also averaged 7.7 yards per rush outside the right tackle, which ranked third in the country, underscoring Wills’ dominance as a run-blocker, which should fit in nicely as the Browns transition to a zone-blocking run scheme up front under Stefanski.
“We do think that Jed is a very clean fit for our offensive system, largely because of his athletic ability and his movement ability,” said general manager Andrew Berry. “They ran a lot of wide zone at Alabama, too, so it was a bit of an easier translation for us because it’s not like he was in an offensive system where you didn’t see him do some things in the running game that we are going to require of our offensive linemen. We think really physically he is certainly one of the prototypes for our system.”
Amazingly, Wills is just the second offensive tackle selected by Cleveland in the first round since 1970. The other — six-time All-Pro Joe Thomas, taken in 2007 — worked out pretty well for the Browns. And Thomas actually reached out to Wills after the draft, offering his services to the rookie, as Wills makes the transition from right to left tackle.
“He told me that he really likes my game. … and was like, ‘Call me sometime if you ever need any pointers,'” Wills said. “As soon as I can. … [I’m going to] send him some videos, get some pointers and clips from his direction. I feel like I will be in good hands. … He will be there to help me out. … He’s a Hall of Fame player.”
Stephen A. Smith sees the Browns as the biggest threat to the Ravens in the AFC North.
Last season, the Browns already featured one of the best running back tandems in the NFL in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. When healthy, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry are among the league’s top receiver tandems, too.
Now, Cleveland could be on the way to boasting a stout tackle combination, anchored by the franchise’s most promising rookie left tackle since Thomas — and a big reason the Browns might finally have the pieces to snap the NFL’s longest playoff doubt.
“I’m very excited,” Wills said. “I know those guys want the same exact thing I do. It’s going to do nothing but make us stronger if we all have the same goal in mind, which is to win. I am going to do everything I can to put us in that position.”