BEREA, Ohio (AP) — Joel Bitonio’s sliding only a few feet to his left, but it’s a seismic shift for him — and the Browns.
Less than one week into Cleveland’s training camp, coach Hue Jackson moved Bitonio from left guard to starting left tackle, a spot vacated when 10-time Pro Bowler Joe Thomas retired in March.
Only days ago, offensive line coach Bob Wylie said switching Bitonio this summer to left tackle was plan “Z.”
Well, the Browns went through the alphabet in a flash.
“I’m going to put the best five players out there,” Jackson said following Wednesday’s practice. “We know he’s one of the best left guards in football. He has the versatility to go out there and play, and me knowing Joel, he’s a team guy. I had a really good conversation with him, we’re going to do everything we can to continue to address that position.
“Right now, I think he gives us the best chance to go out there and play tackle and solidify the offensive line right now.”
Cleveland’s initial plan was to bring Shon Coleman, who started 16 games at right tackle last season, to the left side. However, the former third-round pick has struggled so far in camp and Jackson decided he couldn’t wait any longer to see if Coleman would improve.
Another option was Greg Robinson, a former No. 2 overall draft pick. But he’s out with a concussion and there’s no timetable on when he’ll be back.
So after talking things over with his staff, Jackson approached Bitonio, who told his coach he do whatever was best for the Browns.
“I want to help the team win, and coach Jackson wants to put the best five offensive linemen out on the field,” Bitonio said. “Right now, he thinks that’s with me at left tackle. So I’m going to try to be the best left tackle I can be, and if something happens where I’ve got to go play left guard again, then I’ll try to be ready to do that as well. It’s just what’s going to help our team win the most games.”
Bitonio’s spot will be taken by rookie Austin Corbett, who got a brief look at left tackle in camp.
“He’s our next-best guard on our team,” Jackson said.
The 6-foot-4, 315-pound Bitonio has made 47 career NFL starts at left guard since the Browns drafted him in 2014. He played one year of left tackle in college at Nevada, but Bitonio said the new position is a new world.
And while he’s willing to make the move, he’s also reluctant.
“It is an unknown,” he said. “You are always scared of the unknown. I don’t know how it is going to go at left tackle. I kind of know how it is going to go at left guard. I am going to go out there and give it my best shot.”
On the edge, Bitonio will face taller, faster players in single-minded pursuit of the quarterback.
“You are in space a lot more,” Bitonio said. “It is definitely a different animal, and you are on an island by yourself. Sometimes, the whole line goes that way and you are stuck there blocking one of the best pass rushers on the team. It is just a different animal and it is something that I have to learn. Playing guard, I kind of knew the nuances of the position, and I knew if this guy does this or this guy does this, you understand what is going to happen. At tackle, I am still trying to develop that as we go through camp.”
Luckily, or unluckily for Bitonio, he’ll get to practice at his new position against speedy defensive end Myles Garrett, the No. 1 overall pick from last year.
Jackson was pleased that Bitonio more than held his own against Garrett on Wednesday.
“I did not look over there and see a whiff or a guy just bearing down on the quarterback,” Jackson said. “I have great confidence in Joel. He is one of the best players on our football team. He can do it.”