December 19, 2014

Medina
Cloudy
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NFL combine: Offensive line not Browns’ top concern

INDIANAPOLIS — Big-play receiver who scares the defense. Sack machine coming off the edge. Run-stuffing defensive tackle who collapses the pocket. Shutdown cornerback to pair with Joe Haden.

The Browns had their usual long list of offseason needs as the NFL scouting combine began Thursday. That’s what happens when a team goes 4-12, 5-11 and 5-11 the last three years and is on its third coach since 2008.

For a change, offensive line is well down the list of priorities.

The Browns spent their first draft pick in 2007 and 2009 on left tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack. Thomas has been to four Pro Bowls in four years, and Mack went to his first in January.

Last year, the Browns took Shawn Lauvao in the third round, seven picks after quarterback Colt McCoy. He was slowed by a preseason high ankle sprain and started just one game, but the front office liked him more than former coach Eric Mangini did and believes he can step into a starting role at right guard. With Pro Bowl alternate Eric Steinbach at left guard, the Browns appear set at four of the five spots.

Their biggest needs on the line are depth and more youth.

Some picky critics and fans will continue to clamor for a stud right tackle, but Tony Pashos (58 career starts) expects to return from a broken foot that cut short his first season in Cleveland and Floyd Womack (71 starts) could be re-signed as a free agent.

The Browns have too many other needs to look for a starter at right tackle in the first couple of rounds of the draft in late April. If they want a younger alternative, or someone to grow into the position, they should have options in the middle to late rounds.

The same should apply to adding depth on the interior, where there isn’t much behind the starters.

“You can go down in the third, fourth round and find some pretty solid guys,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said of the right tackles, mentioning Central Florida’s Jah Reid, LSU’s Joe Barksdale and Pitt’s Jason Pinkston.

“Reid (6-foot-8, 325 pounds) is a huge kid. Doesn’t look good in drills, but he looks good when you get 11 players on the field,” Mayock said. “Barksdale is a little bit of an underachiever. A starter at LSU, all the height, weight and speed you want, but not real consistent.

“And I’m a believer that you usually ought to be able to find a right tackle anyway. You’re looking for a tough guy that’s going to get some help from the running backs or Hbacks in the pass game that aren’t quite as gifted as the left tackle, so they’re easier to find.”

The linemen were the featured group Thursday in the giant interview room at Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Colts. Barksdale, rated the 15th tackle by Pro Football Weekly and 11th by nfldraftscout.com, is 6-5, 336 pounds and said he hasn’t given up a sack since halfway through his junior year. The PFW scouting report said he has excellent size, arm length and weight-room strength but is too soft-tempered and can struggle on the edge in pass protection.

“My combination of size and athletic ability, I feel like I have all the tools to be an offensive tackle at the next level,” he said. “I’m more athletic than people think. I was a defensive tackle coming out of high school and I think that a lot of people have forgotten that.”

The Steelers advanced to the Super Bowl despite a series of major injuries across the line. Pittsburgh director of football Kevin Colbert said intelligence and versatility are important, because if a team dresses only seven linemen on gameday, they must be flexible enough to step in at multiple spots.

He called the tackle position one of the deepest in this draft.

“It’s actually been good the last couple years,” Colbert said. “It all relates to the spread offenses in college football, because these guys are good pass protectors from their freshman year on as they develop.”

Now it’s up to the Browns to find a lineman or two later in the draft they can develop into starters.

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com.