'NFL is such a turnover league': Joel Bitonio takes Cleveland Browns' QB change in stride
That's why the changes the Browns have undergone on offense don't seem to faze the nine-year pro. Instead, Bitonio is doing what he's always done, which is acclimate himself to the new faces and go about his business.
"The NFL is such a turnover league," Bitonio said following Wednesday's minicamp workout at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. "In good years, you're still losing like 20% of your roster, and so you bring in a new quarterback, you bring in a new receiver, you bring in a bunch of new guys, there's going to be times that you want to get to know those guys. I think that was the main emphasis [of the offseason]. Even some of the guys, you know the Bahamas trip and things like that, there were times outside the facility where guys were getting together and being part of the team."
The Bahamas trip was put together by the unquestioned biggest new face on the Browns' offense, quarterback Deshaun Watson. Watson also is, unquestionably, the most controversial acquisition of the offseason.
Watson has taken a large percentage of the snaps with the first-team offense, not only during the mandatory minicamp, but also the offseason team activities. He's done so despite having the dual clouds hanging over his head of 24 lawsuits in Texas alleging sexual misconduct while procuring massages, as well as the NFL's investigation into those and a potential suspension which could follow for a violation of the league's personal conduct policy.
Bitonio chose to not participate in the OTAs, which were voluntary. However, he did join many of his offensive teammates on the trip to the Bahamas, where he was able to develop a relationship with Watson.
"He does some things on the field that are really special, really unique," Bitonio said. "I crossed over with him at the Pro Bowl a couple times and had the trip to the Bahamas where I got to know him. All that stuff is in court and they have legal battles to go through, but in this NFL, you're trying to get better. You're trying to find ways to win, and Deshaun Watson is a special football player."
Watson's arrival also has essentially pushed out another person with whom Bitonio was very close to the past few years. Quarterback Baker Mayfield remains on the Browns' roster at this time, however, he has not participated in any of the offseason program.
Mayfield was excused from this week's minicamp. The Browns have been in talks with teams, most notably the Carolina Panthers, about trading the former No. 1 overall pick, but nothing has been completed yet.
Bitonio has been one of the Browns players who has remained in contact with Mayfield. He said the business side of the NFL isn't going to change his feelings for the quarterback anytime soon.
"He’s a tough guy and he played his heart out for us and I’ll always respect that," Bitonio said. "He’s still a friend of mine. We text occasionally and I think, like everybody else, he’s kind of waiting it out to see where he’s going, but Baker did a lot for this franchise. He won a lot of games, he was a great player for us and I’ll always be a friend."
Mayfield suffered a left shoulder injury in the Week 2 win over the Houston Texans a year ago. He only missed two games because of the shoulder injury — wins in Week 7 over the Denver Broncos and the season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals — as well as a Week 15 game against the Las Vegas Raiders because of COVID.
Mayfield shut things down after a Week 17 loss to the Steelers in Pittsburgh. He had surgery to repair the torn labrum in January.
The Browns finished last season 8-9. Bitonio, who believes Mayfield will start for another NFL team this season, knows the injury played a role in that record, but wouldn't go so far as to make it the sole reason.
"It’s the NFL and sometimes you have bad injury luck and for him, he obviously had a hurt shoulder, hurt enough to get surgery, and I’m sure it affected him," Bitonio said. "I didn’t have that conversation with him, how much it’s affecting you. I don’t know those details and what goes on behind closed doors. I go out there and play with the guys, but injuries affect them and that was definitely a part of it."
All of that is behind Bitonio. Like most things he's seen in his nine years since being selected in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft, it's just something else to be filed away into the memory banks.
For now, the focus is on the players who are wearing Browns jerseys. Those players, along with the front office and coaches, are reasons why Bitonio believes this year's team could get back to where the Browns were coming out of the 2020 season when they won 11 regular-season games and reached the Divisional round of the playoffs for the first time since 1995.
"I think [General Manager] Andrew Berry and coach [Kevin] Stefanski kind of start if off and you lead from the top down and I think there are players with experience on this team," Bitonio said. "I’ve seen what not to do a few times and so hopefully we can turn that into what to do and we won a playoff game before with a lot of these guys and there are players from winning programs that have been here. I think we do have the guys, we have the coaches and we have the experience now to make a charge for this."
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