The healthiest team might not always win the Super Bowl, but they tend to have a leg up. And this year, ‘healthiest’ takes on a new meaning in the middle of a pandemic. The Cleveland Browns will be down at least one starter, and possibly more over time, for Sunday’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and it gets worse from there.
With the news of Joel Bitonio, their three-time Pro Bowl left guard and best offensive lineman, testing positive yesterday, the concern is now who will replace him in their starting lineup. Their top backup, former Steeler Chris Hubbard, has already been on the Reserve/Injured List. They also just put their third-stringer, Nick Harris, on the Reserve/Injured List yesterday.
That could leave them down to Michael Dunn, a former college free agent originally signed by the Los Angeles Rams out of Maryland in 2017. Over the course of his first three years in the league, he spent just a handful of weeks on practice squads with Los Angeles, the Jacksonville Jaguars, and the Miami Dolphins. He played for the Seattle Dragons in the XFL last year.
Dunn went unsigned once the XFL folded until August when the Browns signed him. He spent most of the season on the practice squad until being elevated in mid-November for several games, sometimes as a standard elevation and sometimes as a Covid-19 replacement. He totaled one snap in those games, and was promoted to the 53-man roster just weeks ago a day after the team placed Hubbard on IR.
If they are not comfortable playing such an inexperienced player there, the Browns may consider moving tackle Kendall Lamm inside to guard. He has started a couple dozen games—all at tackle—over the course of his career, but has more than zero experience inside, even if it’s almost exclusively limited to practice work.
Cleveland has a couple of other young and inexperienced former college free agent guards who either were promoted to the 53-man roster after Dunn or who are still on the practice squad, but they would figure to be even less desirable options.
The simple reality is that there is no good options for the team to fill Bitonio’s spot in the starting lineup, and it will be a matchup that they will have to navigate, but they have quality linemen in between with J.C. Tretter at center and Jedrick Wills, who should be available Sunday, at left tackle.
That doesn’t mean they can’t run the ball well or pass protect reasonably well. Even without Bitonio, the Browns still have one of the better offensive lines of the playoffs, with the aforementioned and Jack Conklin at right tackle and Wyatt Teller at right guard.