By Steve DiMatteo
It has been a while since the Browns made an offensive splash in the first round of the NFL draft. Before selecting Heisman Trophy-winning RB Trent Richardson and QB Brandon Weeden this past April, the last time the team selected a first-round offensive player who wasn’t a lineman was in 2007, when Brady Quinn was drafted 22nd overall.
It’s understandable, then, for a guy like California ORT Mitchell Schwartz to take a back seat to the playmakers the Browns drafted this year. While he was taken in the second round, the right tackle position just doesn’t generate the same level of excitement among the fan base.
Nevertheless, Schwartz is not a rookie to be forgotten. It is common knowledge — especially among people in Cleveland — that the rest of an offense can only go as far as its offensive line will allow. Since 1999, the Browns have labored through offensive lines that have helped shorten the careers of a laundry list of quarterbacks and running backs.
Finally, with the first-round selections of OLT Joe Thomas in 2007 and C Alex Mack in ’09, the Browns took notice of their problem. There was a concerted effort to bring the Browns’ line up to par and, at times, it has paid off.
As recently as the 2010 season, the Browns’ O-line was serviceable, helping to propel RB Peyton Hillis to 1,654 all-purpose yards and 13 touchdowns.
But since Hillis’ breakout season, the inconsistency of the line — specifically on the right side — has helped bury the Browns’ offense at the bottom of the league. From John St. Clair and Tony Pashos to Oniel Cousins and Artis Hicks, a revolving door of oft-injured and/or past-their-prime linemen was brought in to plug the gap.
It worked at left guard, where the veteran Eric Steinbach was a stalwart alongside Thomas. But the right side was the tremendously frustrating yin to the left side’s Pro Bowl-caliber yang.
Enter Schwartz, the Browns’ first real attempt at achieving that much-needed balance.
He started all 51 games during his career at Cal, with 16 of those starts at right tackle (the other 35 were at left tackle). The 6-6, 318-pound lineman, who has NFL bloodlines thanks to brother Geoff, an offensive tackle with the Vikings, boasts an impressive frame, but also enough athletic ability to block, push rushers wide and be mobile upfield.
He doesn’t come without concerns, though; with a back injury that required surgery in the spring of 2011. However, Schwartz still managed to make all 13 starts at left tackle during that season.
Many people choose to take general manager Tom Heckert to task for the team’s struggles so far during his tenure. The pick of Schwartz in the second round, when the Browns so desperately needed a wide receiver, was met with knee-jerk scoffing, but it’s a clear indication that Heckert knows what he’s doing.
He knows that Weeden needs the right situation around him in order to succeed. Weeden is a good quarterback, but perhaps not one who could overcome major faults along the offensive line. He isn’t very mobile, making pocket protection more important than ever.
As for Richardson, he has the chance to become a talent the Browns haven’t seen since Jim Brown. Those are as lofty as expectations can get in Cleveland, but no one doubts Richardson’s abilities. However, he can’t reach that potential without a line that can protect him.
Is there any doubt that Heckert doesn’t realize this?
Confidence in both Weeden and Richardson is allowed to be higher with the acquisition of Schwartz, more so than any wide receiver could have provided at that point in the draft. That is certainly a lot of pressure to put on the young right tackle, especially when he still has plenty of room for improvement.
But the prospect of a young, athletic offensive line blocking for some young playmakers is an encouraging one for the Browns. Schwartz is the key to making that dream a reality; he is the key to developing an elite offensive line and the key to the success of both Richardson and Weeden.
Those two men will get the bulk of the credit should the Browns’ most recent rebuilding phase work out for the best, but the unsung hero, and the savviest pick of the team’s 2012 draft class, ultimately will be Mitchell Schwartz.