He might not yet be well recognized because of the position he plays, but Cleveland Browns left guard Joel Bitonio has quietly been as consistent and as positively impactful as any rookie in the National Football League through the first five weeks of the 2014 season.
Slated to be the team’s starting left guard since the first day of offseason workouts, the second-round pick from Nevada has played every snap at the position through the Browns’ first four games.
Most rookies expected to make the transition from playing left tackle in the Mountain West Conference to playing inside in the NFL would struggle, at least initially, in their first professional season.
Seemingly unfazed by the challenge, Bitonio has arguably been the Browns’ best offensive lineman so far this year—and that’s saying something, as the No. 35 overall pick is sandwiched between two Pro Bowlers, left tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack.
You won’t see Bitonio’s name in the box score, and you might not notice him if you’re casually watching a Browns game. Take a closer look, however, and you’ll see that Cleveland appears to have come away with one of the steals of the 2014 draft class.
CLEVELAND, Ohio — Somebody has to tell the new Browns about the old Browns, right? Joel Bitonio joined the Browns in 2014, and only he and Christian Kirksey have put in five straight seasons as part of this franchise. It’s not just that longevity that lands Bitonio at No. 9 on our list of the moves that transformed the Browns — he also made his first Pro Bowl last season.
After botching the first two picks in 2014, trading down and then back up to select Justin Gilbert at No. 8 and then grabbing Johnny Manziel at No. 22, the Browns settled down and took Bitonio as a college tackle they expected to move to guard. One piece in The Plain Dealer read “after their two picks in the first round, perhaps the most important player the Browns drafted is running back Terrance West,” as West was picked late in the third round, after Bitonio and Christian Kirksey.What are you gonna do? It’s hard for people to love guards on draft day. But Bitonio was heralded as a three-year starter and academic all-conference pick in college. He said the right things on draft day about learning from Joe Thomas.We discussed Bitonio some in our No. 13 transformation, as the Browns spent money on the interior of their offensive line before the 2017 season. They signed center JC Tretter and guard Kevin Zeitler then, and extended Bitonio. But Bitonio also deserves his own decision as the one recent Brown the team has been sure it wanted to keep around.
He’s entering year three of a six-year extension, worth nearly $52 million, as a player who wants to stay and a player the Browns want to keep. A starter since day one, he made his first Pro Bowl last season, after the Browns tried him at left tackle in the preseason as a potential solution to replacing Thomas.
Bitonio wasn’t all that enthused about that, and the decision was made to move him back to guard, where he has been one of the 10 best players in the league at his position. He missed a total of 17 games due to injury in 2015 and 2016 but has started all 32 the last two years. He’s taken the mantel as one of the team spokesmen since Thomas’ retirement, and the Browns formed an improved line around him. His annual base salary of $8.5 million ranks 13th among guards, a contract that should work for both the team and the player.
At age 27, he’s a sold five-year veteran who was ranked as the No. 82 player by Pro Football Focus after last season, which was third on the Browns behind Myles Garrett and Baker Mayfield. He’s just an accomplished player who has been in Cleveland for a rather lengthy period of time. That hasn’t been the norm lately.
None really. From that 2014 second round, five players in addition to Bitonio have reached the Pro Bowl: Dallas defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence (pick No. 34), Oakland quarterback Derek Carr (No. 36), Green Bay receiver Davante Adams (No. 53), Jacksonville receiver Allen Robinson (No. 61) and Jarvis Landry, who was picked by Miami at No. 63 before landing with the Browns.
The Brown will take Bitonio and the idea of settling one position on the offensive line for a decade.
Three Ray Farmer selections stuck around into this era of the Browns — Duke Johnson, Christian Kirksey and Bitonio. When it came to true survivors of 1-31, only they made it through to the other side as meaningful parts of the roster. It’s Bitonio who will continue to have the greatest influence and will stand as the greatest Farmer contribution to these Browns.
Thomas lasted 11 years. Bitonio is entering year six, with a contract that runs through 2022, which would be his ninth year. Bitonio hasn’t played to a Hall of Fame level like Thomas, but is there any reason to expect anything other than a full decade, or more, of high-level play from Bitonio? He should reap what Thomas never did, which is the chance to play for a winning team. At this point, expect Bitonio to be part of that for the long haul.
The veteran offensive lineman has been through plenty of tough Decembers in Cleveland. This year, though, has been different, as the Browns enter their home finale with wins in four of their last five games.
A sellout crowd awaits.
“It’s big news,” Bitonio said.
It’s been good to put together a couple of wins here. We have two in a row, then four of five and then we’re trying to finish the season with a couple more. It’s been good to feel wins, learn how to win some close games. That was pretty much a playoff elimination game last week. I know the games on Sunday didn’t go our way but against the Denver the loser was out. We found a way to win. It wasn’t the prettiest but the good teams in the league — I’m not saying we’re there yet — find ways to win games.
It was cool. We didn’t get home until 5 a.m. from Denver. I don’t know what took so long but it was a late night. I woke up at 12 and I was like, ‘Let’s see what games we’ve got.’ I know I had to watch Baltimore and then Pittsburgh play. Pittsburgh was the big one and they ended up pulling it off. It was fun to watch a game where it’s like, ‘Hey, if this team loses we still have a chance.’ It was cool to be a part of that. Me and my wife were sitting there rooting against them a little bit. It’s late December and usually around this time we’re thinking about offseason stuff and now it’s, ‘hey, we’ve got a chance to do something’ and we’re trying to work to finish the season with two more wins.No. I don’t think Gregg (Williams) would let us. Gregg’s done a good job of keeping us focused. The whole time it’s been focused on us. We want to really, really try to improve our team each week and try to get the best guys out there. For us to worry about that kind of stuff, it would have been cool to sneak in but we didn’t play well enough early in the year. We’ve got a lot to still improve on. For us, let’s get better this week, let’s go 1-0, let’s get to .500 and we’ll see what happens after that.Pretty impressive. He had a run, and I knew it wasn’t a good run look because I had to block it but for a quarterback to see that was really cool. The communication, it’s a loud stadium. For us to try and communicate back and tell the O-line how we’re blocking it, get the receivers the right routes with some hand signals. Then (Antonio) Callaway made a great play. Wide open, good throw. It was fun. It gave us the lead and ended up being the game-winning score. That was a sweet play, man. It’s something you’ve seen develop since he’s become the starterBaker’s really improved. Freddie (Kitchens) has done a good job of getting us in the right plays. Any time we get near the 40 or 30, someone in the huddle — it might be Jarvis (Landry), it might be myself, it might be JC (Tretter), it might be Kevin (Zeitler) — someone is saying no penalties, no sacks, no negative plays, we can’t afford to lose it here. Baker’s done a good job making decisions and we’ve done our best to give him the best looks around him and we’ve had some good playcalls. It’s been cool to score touchdowns. It’s almost coming to a placewhere we get down there and we’re going to put this one in.We’re improving. We’re working and we’ve got hungry, young guys. We’ve got a big group of core guys. It’s not like we have a 13-year guy in place (at quarterback) where we say we’ve got to win now. That’s going to be our mindset but we have a lot of young guys that are going to improve. The Year 1 to Year 2 jump is usually pretty big for a lot of guys. Then you have guys like Myles (Garrett) going 2 to 3, Larry (Ogunjobi) 2 to 3. Then you’ve got the O-line that hopefully will be together coming back. It’s going to be fun. I know we have expectations now and have them for the first time in a while. It’s something we’ve got to work for and live up to. Now instead of working to prove people wrong, we’ve got to work to prove people right.
I think so in the sense we’re going to keep a lot of the same guys. A lot of times when you go from year to year and you haven’t been great there’s a lot of turnover. This year, I think the majority of our main pieces will be the same. Obviously we’re going to add some pieces in free agency and the draft. We’re going to keep the majority of the main guys.; the quarterback, the defensive end, the corner. These are cornerstone pieces and those are guys you want to build around. It’s going to be fun to see them develop.
There haven’t been many late-season sellouts at FirstEnergy Stadium during your career but Sunday will be just that. What’s that kind of support meant to you?
It’s big news. I know a lot of people have that Monday off so I’m sure it will be pretty rowdy with coach (Hue) Jackson coming to town. We’re giving them something to watch. I understand why people weren’t coming late in the season. It’s cold, Christmas time, there’s reasons not to make it to the game. We’re trying to play our hearts out and we’re giving it everything we have. For them to come out and support us has been awesome. We’ve done well at home this season. We’re trying to finish up with a bang. We’ll be 5-2-1 at home if we win, which is definitely the best record we’ve had in a while. Hopefully we can finish out and get the win and run in that tunnel after the win. It’s special and really cool to see.