Former Browns center JC Tretter retires, points to union role affecting chances to play
JC Tretter won't be riding to the rescue for the Browns because the longtime NFL center announced Thursday on social media he's retiring.
Although Tretter says his days as an offensive lineman are done, he will remain president of the NFL Players Association.
On March 15, the Browns released Tretter in a cost-saving move, but questions arose recently about whether the two sides would reunite after Tretter's successor, Nick Harris, suffered a season-ending knee injury in the preseason opener Aug. 12 against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
For the past five seasons, Tretter, 31, had been one of the better Browns players, starting all 80 regular-season games in which he appeared with the team. He missed just one game during his Browns tenure, sitting out a 24-22 loss last season to the Green Bay Packers on Christmas Day after contracting COVID-19.
Harris, a 2020 fifth-round draft pick of General Manager Andrew Berry, played well against the Packers and strengthened the Browns' confidence in their succession plan at center. It's among the reasons they moved on from Tretter.
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With Harris sidelined, Ethan Pocic, a free-agent acquisition in March who has 40 NFL starts on his resume, is preparing to start at center in the Sept. 11 season opener against the Carolina Panthers. Meanwhile, Michael Dunn has emerged as a viable backup.
In eight NFL seasons, Tretter started 90 of the 111 regular-season games in which he appeared with the Browns and Packers. He pushed through many injuries, including nagging knee issues, to become a fixture in the middle of the Browns' offensive line.
JC Tretter tells Sports Illustrated role in union has affected teams' willingness to sign him
As NFLPA president, Tretter led a charge last offseason for players to skip voluntary in-person offseason workouts at team facilities, citing COVID-19 concerns and injury data from the previous year. Virtually the entire Browns starting offense followed Tretter's lead and refrained from attending voluntary organized team activity practices in 2021.
For a story about his retirement, Tretter told Sports Illustrated he believes his role in leading movements for the union has affected his employment opportunities this offseason as a player.
Furthermore, Tretter told SI none of the seven teams his camp contacted after his release from the Browns reciprocated the interest, even though his problematic right knee is "fully ready" for game action and he's been asking for a salary "well below the value I bring." Among those seven teams were the Panthers, Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings.
“Minnesota never returned our call,” Tretter told SI.
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Tretter became president of the NFLPA in March 2020 and was re-elected to another two-year term this past March. He knew eventually being blackballed by NFL teams would not be out of the realm of possibility.
“Guys would be like, ‘Oh, like how are your knees doing?’” Tretter told SI. “And I always said, ‘My NFLPA job is gonna end my career well before my knees end my career.’”
Tretter's agent summarized to him why the market for his services didn't heat up.
“I got a call in mid June,” Tretter told SI, “and it was like, ‘I didn’t realize how many people you pissed off.’”
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Earlier this month, Browns four-time Pro Bowl left guard Joel Bitonio indicated he believes Tretter's duties as a union leader have left him without a team.
"I don't hear those conversations all the time, but I think when you have a guy that's a top-five, top-10 center in the league, and he's not on a roster and he's the NFLPA president, maybe some of the owners don't appreciate what he brings to the table on certain topics where he's trying to protect player safety and things of that nature," said Bitonio, a close friend of Tretter.
"It seems a little suspicious to me, but again, I don't know what's going on behind closed doors. I don't know what his conversations have been with teams and stuff, but just from an outside perspective, usually players that are close to the top of their game get picked up. Teams want to win in this league, so it's an interesting topic for sure."
Looking back at JC Tretter's career with Cleveland Browns
Tretter joined the Browns in 2017, when he left the Packers in unrestricted free agency. A fourth-round pick of the Packers in 2013, Tretter exceled with the Browns and earned a three-year, $32.5 million contract extension from them in November 2019.
Before the Browns cut Tretter five months ago, he said he had planned to play in 2022. A Pro Bowl alternate last season, Tretter ranked sixth among the 39 qualifying centers ProFootballFocus.com graded last season. He was also the fourth-best center in run block win rate last season at 72%, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
"Happy for JC," Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said Thursday of Tretter's retirement. "I’m sure he’ll do great in the next chapter of his life, whatever he wants that to be. But I think very highly of the person.
"Incredible how he was able to fight through injuries and all those type of things. Just think about some of the injuries he dealt with in Green Bay and then came here and didn't miss much time. ... Never wanted to come out of the game. An impressive example for the young guys about how to make it to Sunday."
Tretter had been scheduled to make $8.235 million with a salary cap hit of $9.86 million in 2022, the final season of his contract, according to spotrac.com. He carried a dead cap hit of $1.625 million. Releasing him saved the Browns $8.23 million in salary cap space.
With Tretter's track record, he was widely expected to find a starting job on another roster. Instead, he is moving on to another stage of life, and serving as NFLPA president will be part of it.
“I took this job knowing the risks,” Tretter told SI. “I think that’s the price of leadership.”
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Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter: @ByNateUlrich.