The men in the middle were the center of attention for the Browns on Thursday.
Cleveland committed more than $120 million, including $64.5 million guaranteed, to the interior of its offensive line as NFL free agency began.
The Browns reached a five-year, $47.5 million extension, including $23 million guaranteed, with left guard Joel Bitonio a year before he was eligible to become a free agent. He’s signed through 2022.
The Browns then added right guard Kevin Zeitler, who was ranked the top guard on the free agent market. He became the league’s highest-paid guard, agreeing to terms on a five-year, $60 million contract, including $31.5 million guaranteed.
Center J.C. Tretter rounded out the threesome with a three-year, $16.75 million deal, including $10 million guaranteed. He’s expected to replace Cameron Erving.
The Browns also agreed to terms with receiver Kenny Britt on a four-year, $32.5 million deal.
“Our approach was to be very targeted heading into free agency,” executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown said. “We feel they match the identity of the team we are trying to build.”
The Browns allowed a league-high 66 sacks last season.
Zeitler (6-foot-4, 315 pounds) was a first-round pick of the Bengals and has been a five-year starter. NFL.com ranked him eighth overall among free agents.
He has appeared in 72 games with 71 starts, all at right guard. He helped the Bengals to two division titles and four postseason appearances.
“I think Kevin is one of the premier right guards in football,” said Hue Jackson, who was an assistant with the Bengals for four years with Zeitler. “I believe he’s going to be a really good football player for us at a position of need, and I think he’ll do a great job.”
Zeitler, 27, surpassed Oakland’s Kelechi Osemele ($11.7 million a year) as the richest guard in the NFL. He played every snap last year, allowing a sack and 14 pressures, according to profootballfocus.com.
Zeitler will replace John Greco, who had Lisfranc surgery last season. Greco, 31, said after the season he planned to be ready for training camp, but the recovery can be tricky. If he’s healthy and the Browns keep him, he could be a valuable swing man off the bench.
Bitonio (6-4, 305) was a second-round pick (No. 35 overall) in 2014 and immediately stepped into the starting lineup. He has started all 31 games he’s played in three seasons but ended the last two years on injured reserve.
He had an ankle injury in 2015 and a Lisfranc injury in 2016 that sidelined him after five games and required surgery. The extension points to the team’s confidence in his ability to return.
“I am so excited to be part of the Browns organization,” Bitonio said. “They have unbelievable faith in me and I have faith in them. I am really pumped to be here to try to help build this up and turn the Browns around.”
The Browns were criticized a year ago when five starters departed at the onset of free agency, including center Alex Mack and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz. In its second year, the front office is trying to correct its mistakes.
Bitonio’s extension follows a $50 million extension for linebacker Jamie Collins. Linebacker Christian Kirksey could be next in line for a long-term deal.
“It’s important for us to identify the young talented players on our roster, who fit our culture and make sure they remain Cleveland Browns,” Brown said. “Joel has proven that he is a smart, tough, physical football player and we view him as one of the best young linemen in this league.
“He exemplifies what we look for in a young leader on and off the field. We are excited to keep him here to be part of our foundation for a number of years to come.”
Tretter, 26, was a fourth-round pick of Green Bay in 2013. He’s started 10 games, including seven last season before a knee injury that required surgery.
NFL.com ranked him the second-best center on the free agent market, behind former Jets veteran Nick Mangold. Tretter (6-3, 307) went to Cornell and has played center, guard and tackle. All of his starts came at center.
“J.C. is a very athletic center who played in Green Bay and did a good job for them,” Jackson said. “He had a little injury history, but comes here healthy and ready to go. We’re happy to have him.”
The Browns also claimed Marcus Martin (6-3, 310) off waivers from San Francisco. He was a third-round pick in 2014 and has 22 starts at center and two at guard.
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