Calling all tackles is Browns' offseason cry with Jack Conklin's injury, Jedrick Wills Jr.'s struggles

Marla Ridenour
Akron Beacon Journal
Cleveland Browns offensive tackle Jack Conklin leaves the field on a cart during the first half of an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

Calling all tackles is the Browns' offseason cry.

Although guards Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller signed contract extensions in 2021, much must be solidified on one of the league's best offensive lines heading into 2022.

Right tackle Jack Conklin may not be ready for training camp after rupturing the patellar tendon in his right knee on Nov. 28, a day after he was activated from injured reserve after suffering a dislocated left elbow.

Left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. sprained his ankle in the season opener and although he started the next three games before being shut down for two, the 10th overall pick in 2020 did not make the progress expected. It was Wills’ second year on the left side after playing right tackle in high school and at the University of Alabama.

Swing tackle Chris Hubbard suffered a triceps injury in Week 1 and, after being inactive for four weeks, decided to undergo season-ending surgery. Hubbard was coming off a dislocated kneecap in 2020; he will be an unrestricted free agent on March 16.

Fourth-round pick James Hudson III, a tackle from the University of Cincinnati, was thrust into the lineup before he was ready, starting four games and playing in 12, six only on special teams.

Center JC Tretter, 30, who has one year remaining on his contract, could be a salary-cap casualty if the Browns decide two-year veteran Nick Harris is ready to take over.

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The Browns will have to bolster their tackle depth, likely through free agency and in the April 28-30 NFL Draft.

Injuries and COVID-19 forced the Browns to use seven different starting offensive line combinations during a disappointing 8-9 season. In only six games of the 17 games did they have their starting five of Wills, Bitonio, Tretter, Teller and Conklin.

Blake Hance, a natural guard, played left and right tackle, and offensive line coach Bill Callahan said in mid-November that Hance was "surviving" and "serviceable." Four-time Pro Bowler Bitonio made his first two career starts at left tackle, with Michael Dunn taking over Bitonio’s usual spot.

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Even with one of the best offensive line coaches in the league in Callahan, the juggling impacted the season and the Browns’ struggles on offense. The Browns ranked fourth in the league in rushing (145.4 yards), but tackle problems contributed to the passing attack finishing 27th (195.3) as quarterback Baker Mayfield played with a torn labrum in his left shoulder suffered in Week 2.

Conklin, a two-time All-Pro, being limited to seven games had a major impact. The sight of his knee buckling as he walked to the sideline in Baltimore was arguably the most heartbreaking moment of the season.

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“Jack Conklin is a great player. To be without him is not ideal,” Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said Monday. “That is our job as coaches and our job as players to next man up and adjust whatever we are doing based on who is in there.

“The different lineups along the offensive front are never what you are looking for. You are always looking for those five guys to play all 16 or 17 games together, and that may not be realistic. It certainly was not for us this season.”

Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Tyus Bowser (54) is blocked by Cleveland Browns offensive tackle Jedrick Wills (71) as quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) avoids the sack during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Teller said losing Conklin, a leader in the offensive line room, was a tough blow.

“He works extremely hard, he's a great person to watch for young guys and it sucks,” Teller said Monday. “He's fighting as hard as he can to get back. You can do everything mentally that you can, [but] if your body doesn't want you to play, it's not gonna play.

“But I think he's going to come back and be strong and be ready to go. Because he didn't play football for half the year, so I know he's missing it.”

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Teller offered a more blunt assessment of Wills, even though he said, “Jed’s my dog.” Wills ranked 62nd out of 82 qualifying offensive tackles in rankings done by Pro Football Focus.

“I think that Jed is a great player. I think that Jed just needs to work. He just needs to get after it,” Teller said. “And I love Jed. There's certain things that it's like, ‘Hey, fight through the injury, you gotta play.'

“We lost our swing tackle Game 1, so Jed didn't really have an option but to play and that's really what you have to do. He’s got to do it. He's got to go out there and play hard.”

Cleveland Browns center JC Tretter (64) and Cleveland Browns offensive tackle Jack Conklin (78) take the field before NFL football practice, Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021, in Berea, Ohio. [Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal]

Teller diidn't exclude himself from the postseason criticism.

“I didn't think I played as well as I could have this year. So that's the same thing I say, ‘Jed, don't be afraid to call what the issues are. If something's a problem, if you have a bad ankle, double tape that thing and push it through, because at the end of the day everybody has to deal with that.”

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Teller said he told Wills he could come to Cleveland to work out with him in the offseason.

“He might come back, that would be cool, spend some time here,” Teller said. “But I think that Jed's gonna be all right, he's just gotta get to the work. 

“Everybody wants to say that work is bad. I want to be on vacation. Well, right now, vacation would be kind of nice, but work is a good thing. Just kind of get that mindset into him would try to help him out a little bit.”

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The Browns may need Hudson to step in at right tackle at the start of the season if Conklin is not ready. On Tuesday, General Manager Andrew Berry said he was pleased with Hudson’s progress.

“James really got baptism by fire throughout this year,” Berry said. “I actually think he came along nicely and particularly ended his season in a really strong manner against Cincinnati. I think it is tough for a guy who is a former D-lineman, a fourth-round pick and played left tackle and right tackle for us, but it is good experience.”

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