Take a good look at the Cleveland Browns' offensive line on Sunday.
It’s debatable how many linemen will be back. If it weren’t so hard to completely retool, the case could be made that the Browns will have four new starters in 2014 to go with left tackle Joe Thomas.
That’s a stretch, of course, and a good deal of speculation.
But the Browns haven’t seemed enamored with their guards all season, there’s been a lot of rumblings about the inconsistencies of right tackle Mitchell Schwartz and center Alex Mack is slated to be a free agent.
Nothing is known, of course, and there is a game yet to be played. But Mack’s potential departure seems the most significant. With Maurkice Pouncey injured, there is a lot of talk that Mack is one of the three or four best centers playing.
“Cleveland’s a very easy place to come back to,” Mack said. “I like the coach. I like the players. I have a house here. Without a doubt it would be easy to come back.”
But Mack, like safety T.J. Ward, also has the opportunity to decide where he wants to play, and since he was Eric Mangini’s first-round pick the team has gone 23-56. The Browns could place the franchise tag on Mack -- they have the salary-cap room -- but the new CBA calls for him to be paid the average of the top five offensive linemen, not centers. That number will approach $10 million, and Joe Banner’s history has not been to overpay.
Thomas feels it’s important to keep Mack with the Browns.
“Very few people really understand how many things the center is actually responsible for,” Thomas said. “Obviously the quarterback has the ball in his hands and he’s the guy who ultimately makes the decisions. But when it comes to setting the protections and setting the blocking in the run game, nobody has more on their plate than the center.
“[Mack is] probably the best that I’ve seen and has to be one of the best in the NFL at understanding the mental side of the game and getting everybody on the same page blocking wise.”
Guard Shawn Lauvao was drafted the same year as Mack, and the feeling is the team will let him get to free agency.
“You take it with a grain of salt,” Lauvao said. “If they want to bring me back, so be it. If they don’t, I feel like [free agency is] a great opportunity.”
The Browns do have John Greco signed for next season, and he could play center. Schwartz is still playing under his rookie contract. But the team discussed trading for Eugene Monroe of Jacksonville during the season.
The team’s wild card is Chris Faulk, a 6-foot-6 and 323-pound player recovering from a serious knee injury he hurt in his senior season at LSU. The Browns signed him as an undrafted free agent and want to take a long look at him for next season.