Joel Bitonio goes way back with Austin Corbett. They were teammates at the University of Nevada for a year and kept in touch after Bitonio was drafted by the Browns.
So Bitonio is the perfect person to discuss Corbett as he prepares to move into the starting lineup at right guard after the trade of stalwart Kevin Zeitler to the Giants.
“He’s a competitor. He’s a good athlete. He’s strong. He plays the game the right way,” Bitonio said of Corbett last week. “He had a whole year to sit and learn, he’s developed nicely.
“He’s been here working out with me a lot this offseason and I know he’s ready to take that step. I know he’s ready, he’s focused and he’s going to not let anybody outwork him, that’s for sure.”
Zeitler was sent to the Giants in the blockbuster trade that landed the Browns receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and defensive end Olivier Vernon. The Browns also gave the Giants strong safety Jabrill Peppers and the Nos. 17 and 95 picks in the April draft.
The acquisition of Beckham was a huge story across the NFL and has dominated the headlines and discussion in Northeast Ohio. Corbett’s circumstantial promotion got lost in the excitement, but remains an important part of the deal.
Once the games start, all eyes will be focused on quarterback Baker Mayfield and his assortment of playmakers, led by Beckham. But if Corbett can’t hold up in the middle of the line and Mayfield takes a pounding, the critics will have no trouble shining the spotlight on Corbett.
And general manager John Dorsey. He traded Zeitler in part to clear the way for Corbett, whom he drafted at No. 33 in 2018 then watched spend the season on the sideline as Zeitler, Bitonio and center JC Tretter didn’t miss a snap.
“The organization selected Austin Corbett at 33rd overall for a reason, because we feel he is a good football player,” Dorsey said last week. “By no means do you anoint him right now, but you go into training camp and compete. At the end of the day, I’m sure Freddie (Kitchens, coach) is going to put the five best offensive linemen out there on the field. Austin has done a really nice job.”
Bitonio has talked to Corbett about the opportunity since the first part of the trade was agreed to March 8.
“Just saying, ‘Hey, man, it’s your turn to step into that position,’ and he’s been working like he’s going to have a shot anyway,” Bitonio said. “You never know in the NFL when your number’s going to be called and I think he was ready last year as well if he needed to be called on.
“You draft a guy in the second round and people think you have to start him right away. He was playing behind three really capable guys on the inside and I think Dorsey felt confident that this guy can come in and be a real contributor for us.”
Corbett played left tackle at Nevada and the Browns originally tried him there after the retirement of 10-time Pro Bowler Joe Thomas. But at 6-foot-4, 306 pounds he doesn’t have the desired length, so he was shifted inside during training camp.
“He’s an inside guy for sure,” Bitonio said. “I don’t know how much he’s played at right guard, but I know he’s going to have all of OTAs, all of training camp to get ready to be the best guy at that position.”
Bitonio complimented Corbett’s intelligence but acknowledged he’s got areas that need improvement.
“A couple things he needs to work on is just a little patience,” he said. “He was a little bit overaggressive last year in the preseason, but that’s something all rookies kind of are, they want to get out there, they want to show they belong. He’s going to come out, the game’s going to slow down for him this year and I think he’s going to be a really, really solid player for us.”
Corbett will have to be to avoid a huge drop-off from Zeitler, who was a rugged, driven, focused veteran and didn’t miss a snap in two years with the Browns, despite thumb surgery early in 2017. Bitonio will miss his neighbor on the line and in the locker room.
“It’s tough. He’s been our guy for two years,” Bitonio said. “We’ve had that interior three of me, JC and Kevin play every snap the last two years and he’s a heckuva player.
“He pushed me to be better. I know I pushed him to be better and it’s tough to see someone like that go. You get close to him, you get close to his family, I know my wife and his wife were close. And those are things that people don’t really see in the NFL all the time, you lose some of your best friends. I know Dorsey’s trying to make our team better and that’s our No. 1 goal, but it’s really tough to see a guy like that go.”