In the span of three days, the Cleveland Browns have lost two centers for the season to torn knee ligaments, but the team doesn’t need to panic because it has options both on the roster and in free agency.
Coming into training camp, the Browns had Nick Harris ready to be the heir to JC Tretter’s throne at center. They signed Ethan Pocic as his backup and selected Dawson Deaton in the seventh round of the 2022 NFL Draft, then signed undrafted free agent Brock Huffman after the draft. Of the four, only Pocic and Huffman remain.
Deaton’s path to the active roster was anything but guaranteed. The last pick of Andrew Berry’s third draft and the second in the seventh round in a lackluster class, Deaton had some ability but could need time to be NFL-ready. Besides surprising the organization, he may have been a player they expected to try and make their practice squad.
It’s also worth noting that Deaton was listed as a guard. The team hoped he could be a versatile interior option, but only the other three were actually listed at center. Likewise, both Michael Dunn and Hjalte Frohold have experience at center. In fact, Frohold has already gotten reps at center for the Browns and was an effective blocker in the preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Offensive linemen certain to be on the active roster include Jedrick Wills, Joel Bitonio, Wyatt Teller, Jack Conklin, James Hudson, Chris Hubbard and Ethan Pocic. This leaves two spots. If they intend to keep nine offensive linemen on the active roster, that leaves two spots open. One for Harris and then one that was always going to be snapped up.
Given that the Browns have four games to play, both remaining spots could be dedicated to infielders. Both infielders will likely have the ability to snap even if they aren’t listed at center.
Dunn and Frohold may be the favorites to win both spots, but Huffman will compete and if they suffer another injury, they’ll still have two available. If Huffman fails, he could end up on the practice squad.
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The Browns had high hopes for Harris this season, and the expectation is that he can return to reclaim his spot next season. However, if there was a position on the offensive line where the Browns could suffer a season-ending injury, it was always center. Losing Bitonio and Teller would be catastrophic, and the Browns had just come off a year in which their tackle position was decimated by injuries.
Even if the drop off at center was less than the rest of the Browns offensive line, that doesn’t diminish the challenge the Browns center will face this season. Within the division alone, the Browns will face DJ Reader and the Cincinnati Bengals twice, Michael Pierce with the Baltimore Ravens twice and a combo plateau with Tyson Alualu and Chris Wormley for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Browns will have to decide if Pocic, Frohold, Dunn and Huffman are enough to handle that workload. If not, the Browns could potentially look out of the team. The most obvious place to look is JC Tretter, who the Browns released before the season ended. He is still available as a free agent.
Bitonio speculated that teams are hesitant to sign Tretter because he is the president of the NFLPA. It is possible, but there are other factors as well. The first is money. The Browns owed Tretter a base salary of $9.1 million for this season, which was the driving force behind releasing him. A trader may know he won’t get that money back, but he’s also not likely to lower his price that much, nor should he. He was an excellent center who never missed a game due to injury in five seasons with the Browns.
The second problem is Tretter’s knees. Tretter always dragged himself on the field and played at a high level, but endured significant pain in the process. As a result, he hardly ever trained. In the height of the season, teams will be fine with it because the product continues to be good, but usually teams balk at the prospect of signing a player they know won’t be able to practice.
Realistically, as long as Tretter is fit, the Browns could sign Tretter two weeks before the first game of the season and have no problem. The crime hasn’t changed. He knows it as well as anyone associated with the organization. It’s just a matter of adjusting to contact.
If this is indeed a conversation the Browns are having in the building, they will use every available minute up until this point trying to prepare the players they have on the roster. This is where having Bill Callahan, as well as two pro guards, becomes so valuable, as it provides an environment that should increase the player of whoever snaps the ball for the Browns.